This is a perfect season to enjoy the beauty of the many restored prairies in the metro area, from the vast expanses at Crow Hassan Park Reserve near Rogers to the much smaller beds at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.
Tall lavender spires of liatris stand in seas of yellow goldenrod and coneflower, while prairie grasses, like the bluestems and gramas, wave in the autumn breezes. It's a feast for the eyes and it must be heaven for seed-eating birds, particularly the goldfinches. Prairies attract an abundance of these sprightly little seedeaters who keep in touch with each other via their musical calls as they share the bounty of all those plants.
A silent field may seem unoccupied until suddenly a flock of yellow finches bursts up above the stalks, twittering busily as they fly in their distinctive rise-and-dip style to a new stand of seed heads. Their musical twitters are a very welcome sound as other birds become virtually silent as fall progresses. In fact, these little finches, among the latest to begin nesting, may still be caring for youngsters while other birds are getting ready to migrate. Young goldfinches emit a repetitive, high-pitched "pee-bee ba-dee" call as they beg their parents for more seed.
A good thing to remember about goldfinches is that they're not always gold. One by one and two by two, much drabber, brown-taupe feathers replace the male's bright yellow plumage. By late October, people begin asking, "Where did my goldfinches go?"
The truth is, they're hiding in plain sight, but they look so much like sparrows that many of us think the entire species has migrated away. Interestingly, it's a little more complex than that: The goldfinches we see in the winter tend to be young birds, those hatched just months earlier, while their parents and other adults move on to Southern states. The flocks we see in snowy fields and at feeders are predominantly young birds and they're fairly nomadic, with a group moving around as much as 4 miles between feeding stations.
Our backyard bird feeders are an important food source for overwintering goldfinches, and many of us enjoy the sight of dozens of the little birds stacked up at finch feeders or waiting patiently on nearby branches for a feeder port to open up. Instead of having to roam the countryside in search of seed heads, the popularity of backyard feeding has meant that wintering goldfinches can simply move between backyards.
Goldfinches sometimes act as handy little barometers in predicting oncoming storms, writes ornithologist Alex Middleton. "During the pre-storm period, goldfinch activity became increasingly frenzied as they jostled each other in their attempts to find a place at the feeders."
With winter on its way, Middleton noted another, not-often-seen survival behavior of these energetic little birds. Sometimes, if caught off guard by a storm or unable to reach their night roost before dark, goldfinches have been recorded diving into soft snow to spend the night in their own tiny, igloo-like spaces.
Since the males don't need their bright coloration except in the breeding season, they're starting to molt into their businesslike winter plumage. The youngsters, who make up our winter flocks, won't put the "gold" into goldfinch until next March, when they start their spring molt.
But even if they don't catch our eyes, they're out there, year-round, spunky, intrepid little birds making their living entirely from seeds.
St. Paul resident Val Cunningham, who volunteers with the St. Paul Audubon Society and writes about nature for local, regional and national newspapers and magazines, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.