Why do Goldfinches Turn Golden?

This is a particularly interesting time to watch American goldfinches, though I enjoy having them around all year long. But right now is when they do a partial molt, replacing all their feathers except for those on the wing and tail. The feathers that grow in are the bright yellow breeding plumage.

This male goldfinch at our nyjer feeder is going through his spring molt, exchanging his dull winter feathers for bright breeding plumage.
This male American goldfinch at our nyjer feeder is going through his spring molt, exchanging his dull winter feathers for bright breeding plumage.

In September the goldfinches molt again, this time replacing all their feathers, but now they turn to a relatively drab olive color. Here’s a link with more details on the molting cycle of male goldfinches.

Birds like goldfinches and cardinals use bright colors to attract mates. But why don’t goldfinches keep their breeding plumage all year, as the cardinals do? The answer apparently lies in the cardinals’ much lengthier breeding season, which can run from February to September. In other words, goldfinches believe that once you’re done with all that romantic nonsense it’s time to grow up and settle down, while the cardinals are always ready for action.

But what about male goldfinches that don’t have the brightest plumage but have really great personalities? Can the female goldfinches really be so shallow?

Male American goldfinch in summer plumage, perched on purple coneflower.
Male American goldfinch in summer plumage, perched on purple coneflower.

Apparently a brighter color is a good indicator of general health and strength. Research on cardinals indicates that the most brightly colored males have the greatest reproductive success, hold better territories, and offer more parental care. In other words, the flashy ones are also the best providers AND they help out more with the kids.

You can attract goldfinches to your feeders with nyjer and sunflower seed. It’s important to keep the nyjer fresh, even if it means throwing out uneaten leftovers (which can be hard to do because the stuff is expensive).

But goldfinches can also be attracted with garden plants, including sunflowers (Helianthus sp. and cvs.), purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea), anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) and just about any of the Rudbeckias. In late summer I enjoy watching the goldfinches feasting on the seeds of these plants.

Do you see goldfinches at your feeder or in your garden?

40 Comments on “Why do Goldfinches Turn Golden?

  1. We do have goldfinches. I didn’t realise they went through this transformation though – fascinating. I love the photo of the goldfinch on Echinacea. I only wish we had cardinals in the UK – I have never seen one.

  2. Your American goldfinches sound very dependable! Our native Goldfinches do not change colour like yours, I grow Teasels too for Goldfinches and apparently they like dandelion seed, I leave the flowers for bees but not the seed heads for birds!

  3. You have such amazing Birds over there, I love your cardinals. But I have to say that our European bullfinches are even more handsome than your lovely American ones. They have bright red faces. They really are strikingly beautiful.

  4. Great info, Jason! I love my goldfinches. Ours are just now changing colors. I have found that given the choice between nyger and sunflower seeds, mine prefer sunflower seeds. Given the cost nyger, I’m ok with that.

  5. The past couple of years I have watched goldfinch peel opium poppy seedheads like bananas to get at the seeds. Little addicts. Thanks for the info – I’ll be taking a closer look at the guys on my feeder now.

  6. Nice post Jason. We enjoy Am. Goldfinches here too. They love Verbena bonariensis (Tall Verbena) and of course, Echinacea. I gave up trying to keep nyger and just let them forage.

  7. We have American Goldfinches here and I used to have a lot of them at my feeders year round. I left the Nyjer feeder but took away the suet and sunflower ones because of unwanted visitors and now have very few goldfinches. We still have birds and birdsong around because of all of the water options in the garden but not the constant buzz of activity at the feeders that we once had. I miss it.

    • What were the unwanted visitors? There are a variety of baffles and guards that are effective for some nuisance animals and birds.

  8. Very interesting! Goldfinches are common here in Alberta but I haven’t seen any yet this year. But then again, I still haven’t seen my first robin of spring….

  9. Having just researched and posted both Cardinals and Goldfinches myself earlier this year, your post should be popular in searches. Many people have these same questions and look for the answers. I am quite amazed at the yellow transformation. When in winter plumage, the Goldfinch males look like the girls pretty much, just a subtle difference between sexes often. Right now in my garden, they are turning ever so slowly.

    • I was inspired to write the post by the picture Judy took of the molting goldfinch on our nyjer feeder. You’re right that it’s very hard to distinguish the males from the females during winter.

  10. I had always heard goldfinches come back to the same spot. Not sure if this is suburban lore or true. Do you know?

    • Not sure. They live here year round, and I would guess that they do in St. Louis also. But I have noticed that they will show up in a given area but then disappear from time to time for a month or so.

  11. Yes, we have goldfinches here year-round, too. They aren’t quite as winter-hardy as chickadees, juncos, and cardinals, but they make regular appearances right through the winter. Cute little buddies, aren’t they? Thanks for the info on the molting and mating processes. Nice post.

  12. Nice post! Goldfinches are also late breeders, they don’t start until many other birds have already produced their first clutch. The fact that they are strictly seed eaters limits their parenting time, I would think. Although I am not seeing the numbers of goldfinches I had a few years ago, I still get them. I think there is a resident pair, but most of the rest are migrants.

  13. We have lots of goldfinches. They feast on my swamp sunflowers in the fall. I only put out a little nyjer seed at a time so that if it rains it doesn’t go bad and I just put it out regularly. I also put a squirrel baffle over the feeder so that it acts as an umbrella…it helps keep the seed dry as long as its not rainy and windy.

  14. Ha! Who knew!!! That is just fascinating!!! I had no idea that the length of the mating season correlated with their color! Very interesting and how funny was this post! Happy weekend to you Jason!

  15. Sunflowers are nice enough, but the real reason I let all the stray ones grow is for the goldfinches they attract. One ( of many) of my favorite summer moments is sitting on the porch and having a family of finches come by to inspect the seed heads. I wonder if the yellow works as camouflage when they’re picking through a field of sunflowers?

    • I know what you mean. We used to live in a house with a big south facing picture window. I planted ‘Italian White’ sunflowers there and we had a front row seat to the goldfinch circus. Wish I still had a window like that.

  16. Lovely photos, and a very fascinating and informative post. Thank you so much for sharing this.

  17. I see goldfinches without feeders as my native plants are their feeders and I still have plenty of seed left standing for them…I too love seeing the color change…they are gorgeous right now.

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