We’ve got red ones, yellow ones, purple ones and, at higher elevations, even rosy ones. Their bright, cheery songs fill our neighborhoods and their bouncy undulating flights carry them over the treetops.
Can you guess the birds?
These small, plump birds with short, notched tails are some of the first songsters we see well enough to recognize, and many become our favorites. They cavort to and from our seed feeders offering a rich pallet of colors.
The finches with reddish heads and bibs are male House Finches. Male Purple Finches appear raspberry-colored over their heads and backs. (Check your guidebook to differentiate.) Every Washington state school kid has been introduced to the yellow and black American Goldfinch, our state bird.
Finches are favored for their songs, which is no surprise when you remember that canaries are also in the finch family. The finches mentioned above, as well as their many cousins including the Pine Siskins and Red Crossbills, are busily preparing for this nesting season all around us here on Whidbey. And that preparation includes a lot of singing.
In his journal entry of May 24, 1855, Henry David Thoreau wrote this: “Heard a purple finch sing more than one minute without pause, loud and rich, on an elm over the street. Another singing very faintly on a neighboring elm.”
Finches can also sing while flying, a skill expressed by only a handful of other birds.
It’s not just the males who sing, although they are the loudest and strongest of the pair. The females also sing. Their songs mimic the males’ songs but in a softer voice, which is called the “whisper song.”
The Latin name for the American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) refers first to their being thistle seed eaters and second to their song as being sad or plaintive. I’ve never thought of the song that way, in fact I’m heartened when I hear it. It’s described as a lively series of trills, twitters and swee notes.
To my ear, the flight call of our goldfinches sounds like they are saying “Potato chip, potato chip.”
The males don’t defend an all-purpose territory, as do most songbirds. Instead they guard the female herself and become aggressive to other males who show an interest in their mates. You might see a male goldfinch give a loud song while flying in circles around a treetop where its mate is perched.
We’ve long been aware that the male’s song serves to attract a mate and discourage other male intruders, but in canaries and likely other finches as well, the male’s song also stimulates the female to get busy building her nest.
Finches are monogamous during the breeding season, and the males remain attentive to the female throughout the nesting process. As long as other male goldfinches don’t show interest in their females and the females are busy incubating eggs, the dads-to-be may form into feeding flocks and forage a good distance from their nests. In human vernacular this would be boys’ night out at a burger joint.
But these male feeding parties are short-termed and serve another purpose as well. While incubating eggs, the females spend up to 95 percent of the time on the nest, and depend on the male to bring back food. She calls to the male to be fed and begs when he appears with food. He regurgitates food gleaned while out with the guys to feed the nest-bound female.
Once the eggs hatch, both parents are busy bringing food to the nest. And when the young fledge, the adults continue to feed the youngsters for 15-30 days.
I’ve watched an adult goldfinch stash its young on a branch and zip into my seed feeder, snatch a morsel and return to pop it into the mouth of a little one. A week or so later, the young ones present themselves at the feeder.
When her first batch of chicks is nearly independent, a female goldfinch may leave her mate in charge of her fledglings and head off to start a second batch of young with a new mate.
As the female flies off to find a new mate, I’m reminded of another quote from Thoreau in which he describes the flight of a goldfinch:
“August 14, 1858, Often when I watch one go off, he flies at first one way, rising and falling, as if skimming close over unseen billows, but directly makes a great circuit as if he had changed his mind, and disappears in the opposite direction.”
Frances Wood is the author of “Brushed by Feathers: A Year of Birdwatching in the West.” For more bird information and to contact Frances, visit her web site www.franceswood.net.