The State Bird of Iowa: American Goldfinch

Flashes of yellow bow and swoop, flutter and perch on flowers and shrubs along field and woodland edges. Energetic birds, the goldfinches, liven and color natural scenes, startling in their contrasting colors, yet soft as the down on a thistle.

The American goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) is a small bird, a little smaller than a sparrow, with a wingspan of less than nine inches. In summer the males are boldly colored, with a bright yellow body and black wings, tail, and top of the head. The females have less conspicuous colors, with an olive body and dark tail and wings, with two distinctive white wing bars. As winter approaches, male goldfinches attain the same plumage as the females, making them harder to recognize, and leading some people to think that the goldfinches have left their feeders.

Goldfinches are beautiful and entertaining birds that are easily observed as they feed in fields or woodland edges or while perched at winter feeders. They are also very vocal birds, singing while perched or in flight. Sometimes small flocks of goldfinches will sing together as a group, rendered phonetically as "po-TA-to-chip, po-TA-to-chip" or "per-CHICK-o-ree, per-CHICK-or-ree." While in flight, they sing in unison with the bows of their undulating flights. In spring, the males' more plaintive call sometimes rendered phonetically as "dear-me, see-me."

Like all finches, goldfinches have short, strong beaks, well-designed for breaking open seeds. Their favorite seed plants are thistles, but they will eat seeds from a variety of plants, including asters, goldenrods, and dandelions. Both males and females join flocks during the summer months and travel over fields and woodlands, displaying their unique undulating flight. In winter, some goldfinches migrate as far south as Mexico. Others remain in Iowa due, in part, to well-stocked bird feeders or natural supplies of thistle and other wild seeds that remain available throughout the winter months. Goldfinches will feed alongside purple finches, house finches, and pine siskins at thistle feeders. They prefer niger thistle seed. Remember that, to attract goldfinches to your birdfeeder, it is important that there is water and shelter nearby.

Pairs of goldfinches begin nesting when thistle, milkweed, or cattail down is available with which to line their nests. The nests are so thick and dense that they can hold water, and young goldfinches have been known to drown while the parents are away during a rain storm. Most nests are built in a forked tree branch or in the crotch of several branches, usually located along the brushy edge of a field or pasture. Goldfinches lay four to six pale blue eggs, each about 5 I 8 inch in diameter.

Goldfinches are popular birds, and there has been some concern that their population may be declining. In fact, some studies have indicated a possible decline in the number of goldfinches in Iowa. Whether this reflects a natural fluctuation in the goldfinch population or a real and dangerous decline in the number of goldfinches is not clear. The goldfinch's habitat, which must contain a mixture of grassland and shrub plants, seems to be adequate among Iowa's farms, pastures, and woodland borders. Future bird surveys and studies may help us learn more about any possible threats to goldfinch populations in Iowa.

The lively, colorful goldfinch is a common bird of open fields, woodland edges, and backyard gardens. It is a very charismatic bird, well-suited to the character of Iowa. The American goldfinch was officially designated the State Bird of Iowa on May 22, 1933. At the time it was designated, it was known scientifically as Spinus tristis. Most books now use the scientific name Carduelis tristis. The goldfinch was nominated to be the State Bird of Iowa by the Iowa Ornithologists' Union, and the proposal passed the legislature because of the backing of that group and because the goldfinch is a year-round resident of Iowa that is easily recognized by Iowans.

By Dan Cohen
Buchanan County Conservation Board

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American Goldfinch © Doug Harr