While most observers think of fall as the season for asters, goldenrods and maples, I consider it goldfinch season. This is the time of year when these handsome yellow birds with black wings and forehead — American goldfinches — come into their own.
Other avian species are packing up to head south; instead, these little finches are taking advantage of late-blooming weeds, especially thistles, to forage. Visit one of those fields and you’ll be entertained by the twittering of these birds as they enjoy the banquet. And not only are these birds stuffing themselves with this widely available food, but remarkably they are also only now mating and setting up housekeeping. Just cedar waxwings join them in nesting this late in the year.
If I were given a reincarnation choice of bird species, I would have to place goldfinch high on my list. Consider your happy existence. All winter long you have only to visit one of those suburban backyards where plastic tubes offer you a sumptuous feast. Then through spring and summer, as other birds frantically compete for mates and then work at raising families, you simply enjoy the weather. Now in fall you can more leisurely choose a consort, build a temporary home and easily feed your offspring. Not a bad life at all.
The range of the American goldfinch includes almost all of the lower 48 states and southern Canada. And it is not our only goldfinch species. My daughter in San Antonio asked me recently what the tiny yellow and black birds that appeared at her bird bath might be. Since she lived at the eastern edge of a western goldfinch relative, the lesser goldfinch, I offered her both alternatives. She sent me a photo and indeed it was a lesser goldfinch, easily distinguished by its more extensive black plumage.
As you observe goldfinches, look for a striped brown sparrow-like bird with only a bit of yellow in its wings. In some years these pine siskins are common visitors. You can also distinguish them from goldfinches by their wheezy call note.