Photo courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey

Wild canary, yellow bird, beet-bird, lettuce-bird, willow finch, catnip bird, salad bird, eastern goldfinch, thistle-bird, distlefink (thistle finch in Pennsylvania Dutch). That is a mouthful of common names for the American goldfinch, a small, fairly common, colorful year-round resident of our suburban yards.

These common names indicate that goldfinches are not too particular about diet as long as it contains seeds. Among their favorites are sunflower, evening primrose, ragweed, burdock, elm, and even dandelion; top on their list is thistle seed.

They also add insects to their menu and can be seen in spring savoring lice and picking small caterpillars from spiderwebs. Arthur Bent, author of “Life Histories of North American Birds,” corresponded with numerous observers. One of his correspondents “examined the stomach of one of these birds, and found it contained two thousand, two hundred and ten eggs of the white birch aphis [aphids].”

Thistle defines goldfinch. Its Latin genus name, Carduelis, means thistle. The goldfinch is the last of the songbirds to breed, often waiting until August when the prickly thistle plant ripens, and its silky threads are available to line nests. Because it feeds among thorns, the European goldfinch, a distant relative, has long been associated with the Passion, the suffering of Jesus before and during the Crucifixion, as symbolized in Raphael’s painting, “The Madonna of the Goldfinch.”

Finch comes from the German word fink, which is said to resemble one of their calls. Another call must have sounded mournful to the person who provided its species name, tristus, which means sad.

In the winter they call during their undulating flight. When spring arrives, the gorgeous male, with his bright yellow body accessorized with black on his cap, wings and tail, will perch on an open branch or a telephone wire, particularly in midday. He will sing his heart out, giving a hint that a female and possibly competing males are nearby.

Goldfinch nests are built in the fork of branches, securely laced to the limbs. They might be just above ground or high in a tree, often in open areas such as railroad tracks or abandoned fields, near a supply of thistle. Nests are woven from vegetable fibers and lined with thistle down or other soft strands from late-season milkweed or cattail plants.

The female selects the nest site and builds the nest by herself in four to five days. Inexplicably, the pair will leave a completed nest for about a week before returning to lay eggs.

Egg-laying completed, the female stays on the nest 95 percent of the approximately two-week incubation time. The male is her provider, bringing food every two or three hours.

Nests are so tightly woven they can hold water, sometimes leading to the drowning of the young. Early nesting by experienced adults might allow time for a second brood, for which the female finds a different mate. She leaves the original male to tend to the first fledglings. Active nests have been found as late as the end of September.

When nesting season ends, the birds flock together. Any number of fledglings can be seen fluttering their wings as they beg for food, mostly from the male. After the fall molt, the male and female take on virtually the same olive color of the year-round female. The spring molt results in the glorious gold of the male.

Goldfinches have captured human hearts for their beauty, seemingly peaceful nature and entertaining flights. Here is a representative portrayal, also from one of Mr. Bent’s correspondents:

“On the evening of July 27, 1931, while walking toward my lodgings, I heard about sunset the chicoree of goldfinches in flight, and looking upward saw several males tracing their undulations over the lawns between the houses.

They had no particular destination, but circled round and round in an irregular manner and doubled back and forth, always rising and falling as is their wont; only it seemed to me that the hills and valleys they described in the air were steeper and deeper than usual.

As they ascended each invisible hillside in their path, they voiced the characteristic flight call; and once one of them burst into full song while on the wing. I watched these pretty maneuvers for about five minutes when gradually the birds drifted out of sight, perhaps to continue their play in other regions. I call it ‘play’ because they did not appear to be hawking insects – their flight was too rhythmic for that, yet for a number of minutes it took them nowhere. They seemed merely to rejoice in an exhilarating aerial sport.”

Goldfinches are social birds and roam in flocks. They may be short-distance migrants, wandering hither and yon during the winter months. Their range is from southern Canada to the southern U.S. and Baja California.

They may remain in their breeding neighborhoods where thistle feeders and black oil sunflower seeds attract them. Tubular thistle feeders made of either mesh or plastic, filled with annual South Asian niger seed, are particularly successful, though expensive. In the absence of thistle, a flock of goldfinch will be drawn throughout fall to a bed of perennial pink coneflowers. With long legs and claws, they easily hang on a stem or perch on a seed head. Undeterred by a stiff breeze, they manage to hold on and husk the seeds even when a plant is swaying wildly.

If anyone has located a goldfinch nest in Evanston, please e-mail the information to

Libby Hill

Libby Hill is the author of "The Chicago River: a Natural and Unnatural History. She has been writing about birds and trees and Evanston's natural history for the Roundtable since 2004.