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Blane Klemek column: Goldfinches brighten the scenery

A short time ago I received a very nice e-mail from Marian Bleth, a life-long Bemidji resident, now residing in Grand Rapids, Minn.

She wrote to tell me of a very interesting observation that her brother-in-law, Grant Ellis from Forbes, Minn., recently watched occur in his vegetable garden.

According to Marian, Grant planted a long row of beets in his garden, but had to replant because the seeds never germinated. Two weeks after Grant replanted his beets, Marian wrote, "My sister (Marge Ellis) called Grant and asked him what was in the garden that was attracting so many goldfinches?"

Evidently, as was witnessed by Marge and told by Marian, between "20 and 30 goldfinches were swooping down into the garden and then flying out again." Grant later checked his garden and, as Marian explained, "that if he hadn't seen it with his own eyes, he would have never believed what was happening."

Marian added, "The goldfinches were swooping down and grabbing his small beet plants in their beaks and then flying off."

Afterwards, Grant showed Marian what was left of his row of beet plants. Marian wrote, "He showed me his row of beets and there were only about 10 plants left."

Marian then asked me if I had ever heard of such a thing happening, that is, of goldfinches plucking beet plants out of a garden and flying away with the plants. Although I've never personally observed goldfinches do such things, I answered Marian by writing;

"What's interesting about the goldfinch, is that they're also called (in some parts of the country, not here), such names as "catnip bird," "salad bird," "lettuce bird," and, believe it or not, "beet bird."

As Grant found out, his goldfinches were stealing his newly sprouted beet plants for the seeds that were undoubtedly still edible and attached to the plants' roots!

Indeed, it turns out that American goldfinches eat the seeds of all kinds of plants, including a host of vegetable seeds and, of course, thistle seeds (niger) and sunflower seeds. In fact, goldfinches are almost exclusively seed eaters, or "granivores," as they are also characterized. Their conically shaped bills are adapted for cracking seed-heads and extracting the nutritious "seed-meat" from a wide variety of plant seeds.

The American goldfinch, also called eastern finch, wild canary, and yellow finch, is, as any backyard birder will attest, a delightful Minnesota songbird. Goldfinches are so named based upon the beautiful yellow breeding plumage of the male bird.

Females, juveniles, and non-breeding males are not very yellow at all. Even so, the bright yellow adult male goldfinch in full, springtime breeding plumage has a fair amount of black colored feathers, too. Its forehead and much of its wings and tail are black.

As mentioned, goldfinches are common visitors to backyard birdfeeders. People find their docile and gregarious behavior gratifying and their alluring displays of bright yellows and sing-song voices inspiring.

These lemon-yellow birds are one of the latest nesting migrants occurring here. Though sometimes present all year long, goldfinches typically migrate south of northern Minnesota in the wintertime, but they don't migrate far. During mild winters with plenty of food, some goldfinches will remain behind and become frequent wintertime visitors at bird feeding stations throughout the Northland.

Nesting season for goldfinches doesn't begin until July here in northern Minnesota. The breeding and nesting season is timed with the blooming and subsequent seeding of thistle plants. Thistledown and plant fibers are used as nesting materials, while thistle seed is fed to their offspring. And it is for this latter reason that brown-headed cowbird chicks can't be successfully raised in the nest of a goldfinch. Young cowbirds simply cannot survive on a diet of thistle seeds or other seeds.

As previously mentioned, goldfinches sometime overwinter here. However, what you won't see, at least during the winter months and early spring, are brightly colored goldfinches. By wintertime, 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 other family members 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, whereas the slightly duller females' feathers are yellow-brown. Both sexes' plumage, especially breeding males as spring and summer approaches, brightens. For sure, not many songbirds are as vibrant looking, sing as beautifully, come as readily to our birdfeeders or remain in the state throughout the year as does the American goldfinch.

Goldfinches are the official state birds of three states - Washington, Iowa and New Jersey. In Minnesota, the American goldfinch was thought by some people as the "unofficial" state bird for many years before the common loon was officially granted the honor. Needless to say, the goldfinch would have been a fine choice as Minnesota's avian representative.

As such, the acrobatic little American goldfinch - the "beet bird" to some - is a splash of feathered sunshine 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