The Gracious Goldfinch
By Amy Campagna, Environmental Education Coordinator
In 1933, the American Goldfinch, Spinus tristis, was named Iowa’s state bird. Easy to identify with its bright yellow body and contrasting black and white wing markings, this little seed-eating bird is many a birdwatchers favorite visitor to backyard feeders. Around this time of year, however, people begin asking, “Where did all my goldfinches go?”
Chances are, they are still here, although you may not recognize them disguised in their winter garb.
For many bird species, including the American Goldfinch, it is the male that sports the bright plumage to attract the attention of females. Females, on the other hand, are usually a more drab gray or brown color to make them inconspicuous to predators while spending large amounts of time incubating eggs and brooding young. All birds undergo a yearly molt where they shed their old, worn feathers and grow fresh new ones. For many bird species, this molt occurs in the fall, after the breeding season. Since there is no need to draw the attention of females in the fall and winter, male goldfinches lose their bright breeding plumage for more practical gray-brown winter attire. Come spring, the male goldfinch will undergo a second molt and begin donning the brilliant gold color for which these little birds are named. The goldfinch is the only one in the finch family to perform this biannual molt.