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Goldfinches in Southeast Arizona


by Jon Freidman

Southeastern Arizona birders have experienced a phenomenal increase in the numbers of goldfinches that can be attracted to our backyard birding stations. Twenty years ago and more, it took us months to attract our first goldfinches. Patience, we reminded ourselves as we did our customers, is the number one rule for birders. The preferred food for the intended species and the right feeder to deliver that food is number two. Understanding these principles will always reward us and the birds. Nyjer seed, unlike true thistle, is the preferred choice of seed for all the goldfinch species. Most other species in our area will reject Nyjer for almost any other seed that is easily available and accessible. Almost any design of thistle feeder filled with Nyjer seed will attract mostly goldfinches. The feeder models that have food ports under the perches are species specific to goldfinches.

Photo by Richard at SearchNet Media

Origins of Name
The Latin genus name for goldfinches, Carduelis, means thistle, one of its favorite foods. The Latin species name for lesser goldfinches, psaltria, means one who plays the lute and refers to its lovely singing voice. The whistled calls of the lesser goldfinch are very plaintive, with a rising tee-yee and a falling tee-yer. Its song is canary-like, with more phrasing than the American Goldfinch.

Photo by Richard at SearchNet Media

Various Species
Within the genus Carduelis are six species of finches. The Common Redpoll and Hoary Redpoll are birds of the true northern regions of North America, inhabiting the whole of Canada, from the Atlantic to the Pacific coasts. The Common Redpoll is also found across the northern tier of the United States. Both redpolls have been observed in many states are rare or casual visitors, but Arizona has never had a confirmed report of their being in the state.

The other four species of Carduelis are all regularly and seasonally seen throughout most of Arizona, especially Southern Arizona. They are the Pine Siskin, the American Goldfinch, Lawrence's Goldfinch and the Lesser Goldfinches. Lesser Goldfinches are present in two sub-species forms - the Green-backed and Black-backed. Green-backed Goldfinches, until recently, have predominated. In very recent years, the number of Black-backed Goldfinches has significantly increased. In fact, some customers report seeing as many Black-backed as Green-backed. In the southeastern Arizona area, the Pine Siskins and the Lesser Goldfinches are regularly observed throughout the year while the Lawrence's and American Goldfinches are more often seen during the fall and winter and perhaps into the early spring.



Reminiscent of the wood warblers, the Carduelis' are small and active foragers. Most often observed scuttling about in native vegetation, they are active and acrobatic in their pursuit of seeds and tree buds, or catkins. When our native trees are flowering, the goldfinches are more active collecting catkins and insects than on the Nyjer thistle feeders. They are often sighted at favorite watering spots and feeders, as well. They almost always travel in small flocks or family groups, occupying a wide variety of habitats.

All five species of goldfinches can be found in Southeastern Arizona, at least part of the year. The two lesser goldfinches (Green-backed and Black-backed) and the Pine Siskins can be found year round throughout their Southern Arizona range. The American and Lawrence's Goldfinches are true snowbirds, showing up in our area in late fall or early winter and staying until late winter or early spring.

Pine Siskins are most found in the higher elevations in open coniferous forests; although during irruptive cycles (years when many more than usual are seen) they can be seen commonly throughout the Tucson basin. As Tucson has many mature desert and drought adapted pines (specifically the Aleppo pine) the siskins tend to be seen more often wherever these trees can be found. The Lawrences' Goldfinches are birds of the oak savanna, chaparral, and dry grassy slopes of the foothills. In the city proper, good locations to find them are along naturally vegetated washes and riverbeds and in grassy or weedy empty lots. American Goldfinches are seen in perhaps the widest variety of habitats and elevations, but particularly where thistle, dandelions, wild sunflowers and other weed patches are found. Typical locations are suburban lawns (dandelions), along roadsides (especially after rains), open second-growth woods and forest edges, and weedy fields. Lesser Goldfinches are commonly found in dry brushy fields, open woodland borders, city and suburban gardens, and alongside streambeds and washes. All of the goldfinch families are commonly reported at feeders and birdbaths.

Photo by Richard at SearchNet Media

Identifying goldfinches is relatively easy. All the species are small with varying amounts of yellow throughout their plumage. The small Pine Siskins most closely resemble female House Finches in that they lack much of the yellow color of the other goldfinches. They are heavily streaked birds with varying amounts of yellow along the edge of the wings and rump when perching. The yellow coloration of perching females may not be obvious, particularly during non-breeding season, but becomes very obvious when they spread their wings for flight. Lawrence's Goldfinch is a mostly grayish bird with splotches of yellow on the breast and belly areas and in the primary and secondary wing feathers. The adult male Lawrence's also has the distinction among all the goldfinches of having a black face and forehead, while the rest of the head is pale gray. The American Goldfinch is the largest of this family group, up to 5 inches in length. It is also the most recognizable in that it has the most amount of yellow plumage, particularly on the back and the breast. The Lesser Goldfinches, are the smallest of all goldfinches and easiest to recognize. The Smallest of the goldfinch family, they are the most numerous and therefore the most common of the goldfinches. Adult males have a black cap, bright yellow neck, breast and belly with either a yellowish green or black back.

All members of the goldfinch family are extremely well loved by birders everywhere as they are bright and colorful, small and active, with very distinctive songs and calls. All species in the genus Carduelis are known to incorporate imitations of other species' calls into their songs. This is particularly true of the Lawrences' and Lesser Goldfinches, who utilize many vocal imitations. Pine Siskins use somewhat fewer, and American Goldfinches and redpolls use the fewest. Quite a few states have declared goldfinches as their official state bird. This is another indication of their widespread popularity.

Photo by Richard at SearchNet Media

At 3-3/4" to 4-1/4" long, the Lesser Goldfinches are the smallest and most abundant of the goldfinches in Southern Arizona. In our area, we see males with black caps, wings and tails. The green-backed birds have been more typical of western lesser and the black-backed more abundant in the eastern part of their range. However, it seems that their ranges have been overlapping and, as a result, today we are seeing more black-backs than ever before. In both species their bills is stout, slender, and conical in shape. When flying, there is a white patch in the middle of each wing and at the base of the tail. The female of both sub-species is greenish above, duller yellow below and has a dark rump.

The range of the Lessor Goldfinches is quite widespread throughout the American west. In Arizona, it can be found in the summer in the cottonwood and willow habitats and in live oaks. It makes late summer visits to the firs and aspens of the high mountains. It is a winter resident in Sonoran habitats. In general, it prefers open brushy fields, open woods, farms, gardens, edges of wooded groves, and willow and tree-lined washes. It likes dry hillsides, but must have a good source of water and abundant seed-bearing plants readily available.

Diet consists of seeds, seeds, and more seeds. Goldfinches are especially fond of Nyjer thistle. It will forage on wild weed and native grass seeds when they are available. About 96% of its diet is seeds. We have seen goldfinches forage on our small black oil sunflower plants just off the main garden area. I was surprised that would gladly take the seeds off the live plants but always avoided the same seeds when they we put in a sunflower feeder.

Bottoms Up Nyjer Feeder

It also eats floral buds (catkins) and berries. It is also attracted to salt. It drinks lots of water, and can easily be spotted drinking at bird baths and fountains, shallow ponds, overflow pipes, and garden faucets left on a slow drip. It's easily attracted to thistle feeders of all types. The type of feeder is of no consequence to the birds - they just want their Nyjer thistle seed. Some of our local customers report that some of their goldfinches do come to our insect meal, Nuts 'n' Bugs, if there is a perch for them to use. While in the past, when there were far fewer goldfinches in the Tucson basin, it often took quite a long time to attract them to feeders - it is an altogether different situation today. Most folks who begin feeding goldfinches in recent times only have to wait a very short while, usually just a few days, before they arrive at feeders.

Species-specific Feeders
As far as feeders are concerned, the goldfinches seem to prefer the feeders that require them to hang upside down to use. Almost all other birds cannot master this as the goldfinches do. If there's not too much competition from other finches, they will easily use any of the mesh feeders. But, thistle tube feeders with food ports above the perches will in time be dominated by the red finches. Nyjer thistle seed is the only seed goldfinches respond well to. If there's too much competition at generic feeders, the goldfinches will wander off in search of a less contested feeding site.

Garden Pests
They do consume some small insects and they can be pests in the garden. Year after year I have to very carefully cover my melon, squash and pole beans with a fine wire mesh so the goldfinches won't eat the flowers. They seem determined to prevent me from harvesting some of my favorite foods if they don't get covered with a bird-proof hardware cloth.

Courtship Displays
In courtship, the male sings his beautiful songs, sometimes while in flight. He spreads his wings widely and flaps his wings rapidly. The male also feeds his mate. The pair may remain together all winter when they join up with larger flocks in search of food. Both adults share in the parenting responsibilities.

The nest is mostly constructed by the female. Her mate may help in the early stages of nest building. The cup-shaped nest is compactly and neatly woven of plant fibers, bark, grass stems and moss, if available. It is lined with plant down, cotton, and a few feathers. It is placed on limbs of willows, cottonwoods, sycamores, palo verde, and other dense brushy plants from 2 to 30 feet above ground level. The breeding and nesting season is prolonged and irregular. Three to six pale blue-green or blue-white eggs are laid between April and August. The female incubates the eggs for 12 days. The young are fed on regurgitated milky seed pulp. It's always fun to watch baby goldfinches just out of the nest as they learn to use the upside down and bottoms up feeders. Within a day or two or two or three they have mastered the art of feeding upside down and thereby eliminated competition from other birds at different feeders. They are quite amusing and almost all my goldfinches, from juveniles to adults, are quite "tame" at the feeder. They seem to recognize me at the supplier of their food and many will stay on the feeder even as I take it down to refill it. They seem very tolerant of humans.

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