by Alex Forsythe
This golden bird has the Midas touch! It has won the Pulitzer Prize, it was the muse of Rembrandt’s protoge, it defeats brood parasites with nothing more than a healthy diet, and it can build an indoor pool!
The American Goldfinch and its less colorful namesake in Europe have been popular with artists and writers throughout time. Ornithologist Herbert Friedmann found the goldfinch in almost 500 works of art. “The Goldfinch”, a novel by Donna Tartt, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014 and is about a boy who is obsessed with a painting of a goldfinch. The painting in the story is “The Goldfinch” by Rembrandt protoge Carel Fabritius. It was painted in a unique style: it is a trompe-l’oeil or optical illusion; when the painting is at eye level, it appears to be in three dimensions.
The American Goldfinch is one of the fortunate birds that cannot be tricked by the Brown-headed Cowbird into raising its young. Cowbirds may lay their eggs in a Goldfinch’s nest, and the egg may hatch, but the chick cannot survive. Goldfinches are rather strict vegetarians, eating mostly thistle and sunflower. It is rare that they will consume an insect. Cowbird chicks require insects in order to survive. Without insects in its diet, Cowbird chicks hatched in a Goldfinch’s nest will usually perish within three days.
These birds are expert nest builders, weaving plant fibers and spider silk so tightly that the nest can hold water. The female is the primary architect, and she builds her masterpiece in less than a week.
This is the only finch that completely molts twice each year. Each molt takes 6 – 8 weeks to complete. Middleton performed a comprehensive study on the molting of the American Goldfinch and published the results in “The Condor” in 1977, but Sibley’s website has translated that information into an informative, animated slide show demonstrating the Goldfinch’s unique molting process: http://www.sibleyguides.com/2012/05/the-annual-plumage-cycle-of-a-male-american-goldfinch/
Goldfinches have been kept as pets as far back as the Roman empire, housed in elaborate, gilded cages by the aristocracy. Fortunately, it is no longer legal to keep these beautiful golden birds captive. As many artists, writers, and birding enthusiasts have discovered, the American Goldfinch is a bird that is best admired living free in its natural habitat.