Most of these goldfinches are wintering American Goldfinches. While they are in the southern part of the United States, from October through March, they wear their winter colors. The males are a warm gray-brown with yellow throats and yellow shoulders (lesser wing coverts). The females are a drab grayish overall.
In a flock of 50 or so of these goldfinches, you will notice varying amounts of yellow, especially on their faces. This is because American Goldfinches are beginning to molt in March. Males begin to get black feathers on their foreheads and much brighter yellow feathers on their throats, chests and backs. Even the females get yellower underneath. In short, they become the gold color we expect when we think of a goldfinch.
However, when these goldfinches go into breeding plumage, their hormones are also telling them to migrate. So off they go. Usually by April, all the American Goldfinches have gone back north.
Fortunately, South Texas has its own resident goldfinch: the Lesser Goldfinch. I think the word “lesser” is misleading. Although a half inch shorter than the American Goldfinch, I don’t consider the Lesser Goldfinch less of a bird!
If anything, the Lesser Goldfinch is even more intensely colored than the American one. The male Lesser is a rich yellow underneath and has a glossy black back. Its old name was the Black-backed Goldfinch. That was a fitting name for this bird in Texas. Pretty much all over Texas, the Lesser Goldfinches have black backs.
Western races of Lesser Goldfinches (found in California, Arizona and Nevada) typically have greenish backs. And in New Mexico and Colorado, the Lessers have various amounts of black and green. This gradual variation in color is known as a cline. In other words, the Lesser Goldfinch exhibits clinal variation in back color. The cline goes from black in the east to green in the west.
Lesser Goldfinches are said to be partially migratory. They leave their breeding areas in the west and withdraw southward in winter. They move into Texas and Mexico. Here in Bee County, on the fringe of their range, they may move only a few miles.
I have a pair or two Lesser Goldfinches here on my farm during the spring and summer. Their melancholic songs and calls are high, clear and distinctive. I know they are around, even if I don’t always see them. But by October they leave.
I always thought they went to Mexico. But recently I learned that Linda and Joe Vegh of Tuleta have quite a flock of Lesser Goldfinches this winter. That is only about five miles away! I fill my feeders with just plain ole sunflower seed. I wonder if the Veghs are offering a special South Texas blend of seeds!
Three days ago a pair of Lesser Goldfinches came back to my farm. At times, they are at the same feeder as the wintering American Goldfinches. But they don’t seem to actually hang out with the American ones. Is this is a case of “birds of a feather, flock together”?
It seems so. Although winter feeding flocks are usually a mix of species, as spring rolls around, the individuals begin to go into breeding mode. At that point, as they grow in their finer feathers, the males also begin to sing. Each species’ song is so distinct that it is possible to identify birds by their songs alone. By looks and sounds, the different species sort themselves out for the nesting season.
So keep on filling those feeders and enjoy the American Goldfinches while you can. But keep an eye out for our special South Texas goldfinches, the Lesser Goldfinches. They are a delight in their own right!