By David Hawke -- I have no doubt that most (many, all?) of you have noticed the vibrantly coloured birds of the spring season. The males of the species shine with feathered bling to attract an equally feathered mate, and also to outshine other males of the species. Those bright colours send out two messages: “Hey lady, look at me!” as well as “Hey dude, don’t mess with me!”
There is currently an onslaught of warblers moving through our region, these small birds appearing in an incredible mix of yellow, red, jet black, ochre, cerulean blue, stark white, and a wide range of other blended colours. Which makes them fairly easy to identify within your handy-dandy bird field guide.
However, if you are a seasoned birder, or perhaps have just discovered the secondary set of prints in the guide book, these same birds, just last fall, had really dull colouration to their feathers. Breeding season was over and they had just completed their late summer full body molt.
Feathers are replaced twice a year, each one being shed as a new feather shaft develops and grows. Even the wing and tail feathers are replaced in anticipation of the arduous fall flight to South America and other destinations of warmth. These seasonal feathers are dull in colour but strong in fibre to carry the bird these great distances.
The second molt takes place in spring, displacing the worn the winter feathers and replacing them with ones soaked in pigment. By the time they pass through our region in May, they are all looking mighty sharp!
Most of the birds I refer to are migratory, here for a while and gone again. However, one species that sticks close to home and also does this change in feather pattern is the American goldfinch. You may well have had a small flock of them at your winter feeder. If so, they appeared, both males and females, as a dull olive green with faint black markings.
Each year I receive several inquiries as to “what’s happening to my goldfinches” when this second molt kicks in. First the head changes and starts to become black, then the body feathers are rapidly replaced with new bright yellow ones. Within a couple weeks the goldfinch flock has gone from 'army green’ to being a mix of jauntily clad males amongst the numerous females.
In doing this seasonal change over right before our eyes, we have been able to witness the process that all those other birds have undertaken while away on their winter vacation.
As exciting as all that is, these goldfinches have another trait that makes them stand out from the crowd. While all the other birds are currently and frantically conducting nest building projects and scoping out the neighbourhood for food supplies, the goldfinches hold off on such shenanigans.
Goldfinches are seed eaters, almost exclusively so. The occasional grub or caterpillar may be picked up, but last year’s weed seeds are what these birds crave right now. While sparrows and others gladly accept juicy grub fare, the goldfinches must continuously search for seeds.
Nesting does not take place until late summer, a time when most other bird species are teaching their youngster how to fly and forage. About the time that thistle seeds are available is when the baby goldfinches are hatching. The young are fed seeds, not grubs.
And at the time of year when all the other birds are setting their courses southwards, goldfinches are hunkering down for the winter. The golden feathers of the males, no longer needed to attract mates or intimidate rivals, are molted and replaced with the dull green palette of winter. And with home territories now dissolved, several goldfinches can now flock together without anxiety.
By all and any means possible, get outside and look for the warblers passing by, but don’t overlook the American goldfinch, our year-round neighbour.
Dave's Notebook: On Saturday, May 14 at 7 p.m, I will be presenting The Birds of Orillia to celebrate World Migratory Bird Day. In support of certifying Orillia as a “Bird Friendly City” for Nature Canada, this free presentation will highlight some of the many bids that make Orillia their home base. From house wrens to chimney swifts almost 300 bird species can be found in and around Orillia.
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© 2022 David J. Hawke