Over the past few weeks you may have noticed a new bird in the neighborhood. Or have you? A popular backyard feeder bird, the American goldfinch, goes through a dramatic transformation in preparation for spring breeding. So it is entirely possible they were there all along. During the winter months males and females appear alike in color, a very drab gray. Upon the arrival of spring the males begin to molt into their brilliant golden yellow plumage. The goldfinch has been lingering in Bryan County nearly all winter long. First reports come in around December and they remain in our area usually through the first few weeks of April.
The range of the goldfinch is quite extensive reaching far into Canada and Mexico. Breeding territory varies however. Coastal Georgia will not see any breeding, however north to central Georgia will.
The goldfinch is unique in that it is the only member of the finch family that will molt twice during a calendar year; once in the spring and once in the fall. All other finches will molt once in the fall only.
Molting occurs for a few reasons. Feathers over time become worn and dingy, even broken and damaged, however they cannot be repaired. In order to stay in peak condition they need to be replaced. This process is called molting. Molting often coincides with an additional environmental or social need of the bird. Birds which reside in a warmer environment in the summer may need a thicker insulating layer of feathers for breeding in a colder climate, thus gaining a greater number of feathers during their molt prior to migration. In many instances males will molt into brighter and more colorful displays for the purposes of luring and courting a female. The duration of molting varies from family to family but for most passerines, of which the goldfinch is a member, this process can last five to 12 weeks.
Some birds, like the bald eagle, will molt constantly for up to five years until they reach maturity. They then reveal their distinct white feathers atop their heads and on their tail feathers. Molting will continue after this as a means of replacing worn and damaged plumage.
The American goldfinch is a colorful addition to our feeders and backyards this time of year. You can lure them in with their food of choice, Nyjer, also known as thistle. The small seed is packed with protein and fat, perfect for goldfinches during their journey northward. Unfortunately they will be continuing on their way in the next few weeks, but it is never too early to think about next year.
As the temperatures rise and spring migration picks up, opportunities for bird watching abound. The Ogeechee Chapter of the National Audubon Society in Savannah continues to host many guided bird walks in and around coastal Georgia. Two upcoming field trips are to Webb WMA on April 20th and to Harris Neck NWR on April 26th. For more information check out www.savogeecheeaudubon.org.