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Blane Klemek column: Goldfinch vied for state bird

On a bitterly cold morning recently, while I filled my backyard birdfeeders with black-oil sunflower seeds, I paused for a moment to take in the sights and sounds of the Minnesota winter.

Birds were all about me, their tiny wings fluttering about . . . soft call-notes whispered to one another . . . sounds of seed hulls being cracked open.

As cold as it was, 20 degrees below zero, not a single bird seemed as badly affected by the sub-zero temperature as I was. Despite my heavy clothing, I was very uncomfortable. The thin jersey gloves I wore were hardly suitable for such frigid weather, yet, as I stood awestruck at the sight of birds clinging by their bare feet to the icy-cold metal feeder, I couldn't help but think how better prepared for the conditions they were than I.

Suddenly a flock of goldfinches descended from the leafless limbs of a nearby bur oak. A single chickadee, alone on the feeder, hastily left. Two dozen goldfinches landed on the snow underneath the feeder, busily pecking at residual seed. Eight or more finches landed on the feeder above them, each trying to pry seeds from its ports through the squirrel-proof cage.

"Well," I thought while observing the feeding birds, "I wonder if you're the same goldfinches I saw last summer and fall?" They certainly seemed to be familiar enough with the place, so perhaps they were. Nevertheless, wherever they came from, the goldfinches were a joy to watch.

The American goldfinch, sometimes called eastern finch, wild canary or yellow finch, is a delightful Minnesota songbird. Coming as a surprise to some people, goldfinches are often observed at our backyard birdfeeders year 'round here in the Northland. But what you won't see, however, at least during the winter months and early spring, are brightly colored goldfinches. Indeed, by winter, both male and female goldfinches have molted. Long gone are the brightly colored yellow and black feathers of the males' breeding plumage.

Interestingly, goldfinches are the only species of its subfamily to molt twice. All others molt once a year during the fall. Throughout the winter, both male and female goldfinches look remarkably similar, but by spring, after undergoing a complete molt, males begin acquiring their familiar yellow and black feathers.

In the winter months, males have an olive-yellow appearance, while the slightly duller females' feathers are yellow-brown. Both sexes' plumage, especially breeding males, brightens. Not many birds are as vibrant-looking, sing as beautifully, come as readily to our birdfeeders or remain in the state throughout the year as the American goldfinch.

As such, it might be surprising to learn that a vigorous campaign was once waged in an attempt to convince both Minnesota's citizens and lawmakers that the American goldfinch should be adopted as the official state bird. As far back as 1926, the Minnesota Federation of Women's Clubs first lobbied to have the goldfinch recognized as the official state bird.

An excerpt from a 1932 Minnesota Women's Club publication that is posted on a Web site about the subject, states, "(Minnesota) residents wanted the blue heron; those near the woodlands, the veery; some thought the white-throated sparrow, the voice of the tamarack swamps, a fine choice, but the majority vote was for the 'goldfinch,' with his gay plumage and musical flight, 'per-chic-o-ree,' as he bounds through the air."

For many years following the initial effort, it's believed that the American goldfinch was possibly recognized as Minnesota's "unofficial" state bird. Indeed, while proposed but not officially adopted, images of the American goldfinch managed to find their way onto various official state letterheads and perhaps some emblems, too.

Years later, in 1947 and again in 1949, the goldfinch was twice more proposed to the state Legislature for consideration and adoption as the official state bird. Of interest, other birds proposed during the 1940s and 1950s included the mourning dove, wood duck, scarlet tanager and pileated woodpecker. Even the eventual pick, the common loon, was evidently not the obvious and unanimous choice. The loon was first proposed in 1951, but did not become the official state bird until it was proposed a second time in 1961.

Nonetheless, the American goldfinch, though never becoming Minnesota's state bird, would have been a deserving and appropriate selection. Unlike the loon, the goldfinch can be observed in a wide variety of habitats through all of Minnesota, not to mention residing in our state during all four seasons -- spring, summer, fall and winter.

For sure, the days of winter are already getting noticeably longer. As snow and cold slowly gives way to the eventual springtime warmth, American goldfinches will still be here. Waiting until July to breed and nest, mated pairs of goldfinches subsisting on a diet of mostly seeds will build their nests and raise their single broods -- the last songbird in the state to do so.

In the meantime, we are privileged to observe these handsome birds flocking eagerly to our feeders for offerings of thistle, sunflower, millet and other seeds. The American goldfinch -- its songs are sweet, its colors alluring and its spirit infectious as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at