March 2015

Iowa’s Wild Canary

Marla Mertz, Marion County Conservation

The American goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) was declared the official Iowa state bird by the Iowa Legislature in 1933. The goldfinch is found throughout the state, even during the long winter months. You may not recognize the dull and drab color of the male American goldfinch during the winter when he sports a dull-olive yellow body rather than the vibrant sunny yellow and black wings and tail. The soft canary song and the roller-coaster flight pattern is your best giveaway to identify this bird.

View the "American Goldfinch" album in Google Photos!

Filling a thistle feeder with nyjer seed (an oil thistle seed from Asia and Africa) or offering black oil sunflower seeds may give you the best opportunity to follow their changes from winter to summer and begin observing their mating habits. The mating habits begin long before the nesting season, which is considered late for most Iowa songbirds. Their nesting may occur in late May, but most occurring in late July and August when thistle and composite flowers are in abundance. The soft milkweed and thistle silk is commonly used in their nests.

There are usually many males that will vie for the attention of one female during the summer months. Several males may chase the female for long periods of time over large open areas, flashing their golden yellows all the while calling “perchickory.”

When it is nesting time, the female builds a well-made, solid nest in the shape of a cup, made of plant fibers, thistle down, spider webs, and caterpillar web strands. Some nests may be in dense grassy areas, trees, shrubs or even conifers. Both parents feed nestlings from the seeds of composite flowers and insects that fill their crops and are regurgitated into the mouths of their babies. The role of the male is to provide most of the food in the later stages. The young leave the nest 11-17 days after hatching.

These sunny singers forage on the ground for insects, berries, and seeds. Driving along the roadsides in the summer you may notice flocks of goldfinches especially when the periwinkle blue chicory is blooming, but if you really want to partake in this little bird’s habitat, take a walk along a prairie filled with flowers or woodland edge. Your backyard gardens, city parks, and fields with sunflowers hold numerous goldfinches, as well. Some of the most favorite seeds come from flowers that we call composites (the head brings together several tiny flowers, or florets, so that they look like just one large flower). Examples of Iowa’s composite plants are, coneflowers, sunflowers, asters, chicory, coreopsis, goldenrod, ironweed, and black-eyed susans. Goldfinches are often seen drinking from the pools of water that is held within the leaves of the native cup plants.

View the "Composite Flowers" album in Google Photos!

Links for more info on the goldfinch:

Gladys wrote many newspaper columns about her birding observations in The Des Moines Register from 1969 to 1987 and in three weekly newspapers in Marion County until the week of her death in 1998. Below is one example!