The American Goldfinch is a symbol of summer. Impossibly yellow in May, June and July, they stand out like flashes of sunlight flitting across meadows, farmlands and treetops.
Then as the summer ends, the intriguing cycle of nature begins. Like a debutante with a closet full of clothes, the Goldfinch changes to suit the season. In the fall, it pulls out its muted colors. In the winter, it’s nearly unrecognizable as it molts into a splotchy, mostly brown outfit.
This makes the Goldfinch’s spring and summer style all the more pronounced. Despite their small size, even a lone Goldfinch will stand out for its sharp yellow profile punctuated by an orange beak. When they travel in groups of eight or ten, as they often do, you’ll also be treated to a sweet, warbling concert.
Here’s an excellent graphic from the Sibley Guides that shows the changes the Goldfinch morphs through each season.
A few summers ago, on a birding trip through the South, we stopped to camp near Tupelo, Mississippi, next to a drained lake that had been overtaken by grasslands.
The field was like a photo studio for Goldfinches, vegetarians who live for the seeds plentiful in fields like this one.
Right away we spotted the first of many, moving from reed to reed, working on dinner. They gave me one of my favorite photos, this one of a male perched on a stalk as if posing for a museum piece. (Not a farfetched idea, it turns out.)
The American Goldfinch is abundant and can be found in almost every state when you factor in migrations. There are indications its numbers are decreasing, possibly because of a limited diet of seeds and thistles. They aren’t yet on the State of the Bird watch list that designates birds in trouble, and there are an estimated 42 million of breeding age, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Goldfinches nest later than most, waiting until July and August when the seed supply is at its best for feeding a new family. In addition to open fields, they favor the edges of woods and streams, which means you can usually see them if you’re close enough and keep on the lookout.
Like many species, it’s the male who gets to wear the dazzling plumage, with a black cap and wings for contrast. The female’s feathers are a yellowish green that nonetheless roughly follow the same format as the male. Here’s a photo of the two together in a marsh in Cape May, N.J.
Goldfinches will soon be getting more attention than the average bird. The Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Goldfinch,” by Donna Tartt, has been turned into a feature film coming out in September. It’s already in previews at theaters.
The title stems from the famous 1654 painting by Carel Fabritius of a European Goldfinch that figures into the story of a boy coming of age after a traumatic visit to a museum.
A few years ago we traveled to New York to see the painting while it was on a rare world tour from its home at the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague, Netherlands. The crowds were massive. You had to wait in line for a turn in front of the painting. If you came expecting the bright yellow plumage, you’d be surprised to see the darker European Goldfinch of the painting. The bird is chained to a stand, as was the custom in Dutch society three centuries ago.
The work is masterful, but this Goldfinch clearly isn’t in a good place.
It makes you glad the next time you see this symbol of summer darting by, as free and radiant as a Goldfinch ought to be.
Notes: John Audubon wrote a lot about Goldfinches. Here’s one of his entries, rich with details on the species, posted on the Audubon site. And here is Cornell’s page on the American Goldfinch. And finally, here’s a photo gallery: