Year of the Bird Series: August – The American Goldfinches

Article by Joanne Fleet

I was on a guided hike with the Hamilton Naturalists Club when I heard someone ask, “Is that a Goldfinch singing? Why are they still singing? I thought all birds stopped singing by July 15th?”

Elliot Blake on his first visit to Ruthven Park National Historic Site – May 2011

I was very new to birds after having just enjoyed my first visit to Ruthven Park. I did not understand the question at all, because I thought that all birds sang all the time; I was wrong. Turns out, males are usually the songsters. In the same way they use their resplendent breeding plumage, males use their song to secure breeding territory, to attract a mate, and to defend their breeding territory. When they sing, they are saying, “Listen to my song, Ladies! I am a genetically superior specimen. I can sing longer and stronger than all the others because my territory is rich with food and safe from predators! Choose me! Choose me!” Once chosen, and after the hard work of raising young has concluded, energetically, it is no longer efficient to sing. All that birdsong is fuelled by food which requires foraging and eating and hiding and defending. Put simply, it’s too much work to keep it up, so they quit. Most birds, especially migrants, get down to the business of breeding in early spring and cleverly time their breeding with the emergence of the insect population, which is their primary food source. American Goldfinches are no less clever – they too time their breeding with their primary food source – thistle. In Ontario, thistle species typically go to seed in July. For this reason, American Goldfinches breed much later than most North American birds which is why we still hear them cheerfully singing long after the others have stopped. The collective noun for a group of Goldfinches is ‘a charm’ which is an apt name as they delight backyard birders year-round with their enthusiastic chatter, undulating patterns of flight, and no-nonsense appetite for nyger seed – which is of no interest to pesky House Sparrows or squirrels.