It's the time of year when goldfinches disappear, a fact lamented by many of our readers. Note that I didn't write that the little birds leave, because, contrary to popular belief, they're still out there. Even though many people believe that goldfinches depart in the fall and are only seen again in the spring, the reality is quite different.
Like the Purloined Letter, goldfinches in this season are hiding in plain sight, escaping our notice because they look little like their summertime selves. They've molted out of the brilliant yellow plumage that earns the males the nickname "wild canary" into drab, sparrow-like feather coats.
Take a closer look at the small birds gathered at feeders or on top of plant stalks in your garden. If their backs are taupe-colored but wings are striped with pale bars, that's a goldfinch. If you look closer, there's another way to tell them from sparrows: Goldfinches have a typical finch beak, conical in shape and coming to a sharp point at the end.
This is typical of seed-eating birds, useful for plucking seeds out of seed heads, then crushing the shell to reach the tasty meat inside.
According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, goldfinches are among the most vegetarian of birds, consuming seeds almost exclusively all year long. If they occasionally ingest a small insect, it's by accident.
While they flock to bird feeders, they spend much of their time in parks and semi-open country where they busily pluck seeds from weeds like thistle, teasel, dandelion, mullein and goatsbeard. Later in the fall goldfinches work on weeds like ragweed and burdock and travel around in winter to snack at native plants that have gone to seed.
These finches spend many hours in the large rain garden near my home, intent on plucking every last seed from the monarda, black-eyed Susan and aster plants. This garden serves as a buffet all winter, until the seed cupboard goes bare.
My backyard offers tube feeders filled with a mix of sunflower seed pieces and the thin black needles known as nyger seed. Goldfinches relish both of these kinds of food and flock to these feeders in droves. And I mean droves — every feeder port is usually occupied, and dozens of finches perch in the nearby plants and shrubs, impatiently waiting their turn.
Goldfinches always seem like such self-confident, self-contained little birds. This species is highly gregarious, a word usually used to describe human personalities but one that fits this social bird to a "T." Goldfinches live as members of a flock, feeding and traveling in a group throughout the non-breeding season, which is most of the year.
They're a pleasure to watch as they fly overhead in a distinctive undulating pattern, first flapping their wings, then coasting/dropping with wings folded. They often call while flying, probably to tell other flock members where they are, in a series of notes that sound like "per-chick-or-EE."
(A final note: The goldfinches in our area now might not be the very same ones we saw all summer, since this species does migrate. Birds that bred in the north shift southward for the winter. So the drab little birds around us now may have dropped down from Canada or northern Minnesota.)
It's good to know that goldfinches are still out there, feasting on seeds and enjoying each other's company. By next March, the males will start the transformation back to their canary-like plumage, and we'll all smile at the thought that the goldfinches have "returned."
St. Paul resident Val Cunningham, who volunteers with the St. Paul Audubon Society and writes about nature for local, regional and national newspapers and magazines, can be reached at email@example.com.