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American goldfinches sport a new look this time of year

American goldfinches look dramatically different in the winter than in the summer.
American goldfinches look dramatically different in the winter than in the summer.

American goldfinches appear to have increased their local numbers over the past couple of weeks. The species is with us year-round, but numbers in winter can fluctuate widely. The species can also cause confusion for casual birders and feeder watchers as the winter birds look dramatically different from the more familiar summer plumages. This is especially true of the adult male birds.

The bright lemon-yellow body with boldly contrasting black wings, cap and tail of the males is replaced in winter with a dull olive-brown body with perhaps a dingy yellowish head and neck area. The wings and tail remain black with pale wing bars, but the stark contrast is lacking. The black cap is gone for now. It won’t be too long, however, before the male birds will begin to show some yellow splotches as the molt into breeding plumage commences. The females will not change as much during the molt.

As goldfinch numbers grow, be on the lookout for pine siskins, a closely related species. Pine siskins have been absent from our area this winter but have been showing up a bit to our west recently. Time will tell if they will spread farther east, but the time is right for it to happen. Look for goldfinch-sized finches with dark streaking over the body and yellow to cream-colored wing bars. Sometimes pine siskins can stage a full-fledged invasion, dominating the feeder activity as large flocks of dozens of birds show up all at once. They can empty your seed supply in no time.

Another finch that has not shown up in our area this winter is the purple finch. These birds look superficially like our year-round house finches, so much that it can be challenging for casual feeder watchers to tell the difference. Given the almost total absence of purple finches from the southeast this winter, I think it is safe to say that any birds being called purple finches are actually house finches, especially if large numbers of birds are involved.

So make yourself familiar with winter-plumaged American goldfinches and be prepared for a few pine siskins to mix in, especially if the flocks are large. As always, let me know what you’re seeing at your feeders, neighborhood ponds or along your daily walking route. Birds are starting to move again, so watch for the changes.

Taylor Piephoff is a naturalist with an interest in the birds and wildlife of the southern Piedmont: PiephoffT@aol.com.