Many people are surprised to learn the American goldfinch is with us in Minnesota year-round. It’s a case of mistaken identity.

In winter, goldfinches are in their somber plumage, mostly brown and gray. They are confused for sparrows. Looking carefully, however, observers will see dull olive-yellow, too.

Commonly seen with pine siskins and house finches at our wildlife feeding station this winter, goldfinches feed with the others at the seed feeders. Sunflower seeds and thistle are their favorites. A week ago, my wife, Sandy, and I saw the first, new brighter-yellow feathers on the neck of one of the male goldfinches. Many of us consider that to be one of nature’s subtle spring signs.

Although the goldfinches have just begun changing into their breeding plumage, they wait for nesting until July or August when most other songbirds have finished raising their young and some species have begun migrating south. Then, they can count on a good supply of wild seeds. Nearly all seed-eating birds feed insects to their nestlings, but goldfinches nourish their young with seeds that have been partly predigested. Both parents fill their crops with seeds and maybe a few insects. After a while they regurgitate into the open mouths of their hungry babies. Carrying such a mouthful, a parent can feed every nestling (sometimes as many as six) instead of the usual one or two, with each return to the nest.

Called a “wild canary” by some, the goldfinch is mostly a seed-eater, but also eats some berries, and insects such as aphids and caterpillars. They are often seen feeding on the heads of thistles, goldenrods and dandelions.

Their natural range is large, extending from coast to coast and from southern Canada to northern Mexico. Goldfinches add a definite liveliness to open country during the growing season with their yellow and black coloring, their roller-coaster flights through the air, and their sweet songs.

Up to 1961, when the common loon was selected as the state bird, the American goldfinch was considered by some to be the unofficial Minnesota state bird.

Jim Gilbert’s Nature Notes are heard on WCCO Radio at 7:15 a.m. Sundays. His observations have been part of the Minnesota Weatherguide Environment Calendars since 1977, and he is the author of five books on nature in Minnesota. He taught and worked as a naturalist for 50 years.