Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Friday, July 1, 2011

Timing is everything

The American goldfinch is the state bird of New Jersey, so it is a particular pleasure when I see or hear them in my Morris Plains backyard.

In winter both male and female are a dull brown with large black and white wingbars. When they’ve come to my feeders they are usually in a large group.

But as spring approaches, things start to change. The female’s feathers become yellow-green to better blend into the foliage when the trees leaf out and she’s sitting on a nest.

The male makes a more dramatic change – he becomes bright yellow and takes on a black forecap. When it is time to breed, he soars, dips and rises again, a dizzying loop-de-loop, calling as he flies.

The goldfinch has a late breeding season that is directly linked to thistle seeds. What you might see as a bunch of purple weeds in an overgrown field is breakfast, lunch and supper for a goldfinch – and a reason to breed. Without seeds there is no next generation.

Consider Jersey City, the second or third largest city in New Jersey. When I started working there in 1999, there were large, weedy fields in the areas near the Hudson River that had once held factories. With the fields were large hungry flocks of goldfinches eating the seeds.

By the time I stopped working in Jersey City over 10 years later, many of those weedy fields were gone, paved over for large hotel and apartment complexes. The population of birds passing through dropped dramatically.

Some would call it progress or a boost to tax ratables. Considering none of these buildings feature any useful seeding plants in their landscaping, I would say it is a terrible way to treat your state’s bird.

This is why when I start to see the males doing the loop-de-loop, I put out a special feeder for goldfinches. To get a thistle seed the bird has to hang upside-down from the perch. Most birds, such as the larger, aggressive house finch, don’t like to do it. So it gives goldfinches a fighting chance.

Goldfinches are considered a common species by the Cornell College of Ornithology, and its breeding and migration range is within the United States.

(Here’s a fun fact about goldfinches I learned from the Cornell website, if a cowbird lays an egg in a goldfinch nest the chick will die after three days because it can’t survive on a seed-only diet. See my June 12 post "Love is blind" for more of my feelings about cowbirds.)

The suburbs being what they are, I can’t have a vast expanse of weedy field. Nor can I plant drifts of coneflowers, asters and butterfly bush to provide seeds. My neighbors would have me kicked out of town for the former, and the deer eat most of the latter.

So I pick my spots. I leave weeds in corner areas to go to seed. I grow coneflower and butterfly bush behind deer netting. And, of course, there's the feeder.

If I and the rest of the New Jersey population are lucky, the skittish goldfinches will eat the seeds provided, continue their loop-de-loops and raise another brood.

That's my reward for being a good neighbor.

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