Goldfinches return is sign of spring

Europeans await the spring return of their storks, and residents of San Juan Capistrano celebrate the swallow. Here on Mercer Island, a sure sign of spring is the return of American goldfinches.

As I write this, a pair alights on my thistle feeder. The dapper male goldfinch, a lemon yellow canary with jaunty black cap and distinctive black and white wings, brightens even the most unspring-like day. The more somber clad female perched near him shows a pale yellow wash over gray-brown plumage. The female wings off like a miniature ballerina leaping across its airborne stage. The male follows a half-leap behind. As they frolic through the air, each upward stroke of their flight is punctuated with call notes. To me they are saying: “potato chip, potato chip, potato chip.”

We know the European storks travel from Africa, and migratory swallows return from South America. However, the wintering habitat of goldfinches is less well defined. A few stay and forage here for the winter, incognito in their dull, non-breeding plumage. Some of our Western Washington goldfinches winter east of the Cascades, but most leave the state and wander about nomadically in search of food.

Recently I read that 33 states will likely see a significant reduction in American goldfinches, according to a report published by the National Wildlife Federation and the American Bird Conservancy. Washington state’s official bird would disappear from nearly 40 percent of its territory. The report cited potential effects of global climate change as the reason for this decrease.

Up to this point, American goldfinches have somewhat benefited from European settlement in North America. Opening up forested areas has increased suitable habitat. Goldfinches have adapted to suburban growth gleaning thistle seed in vacant lots, on roadsides and offered in feeders.

Since the species eats seeds, it did not suffer the huge losses when other species were decimated by pesticide use. I’ve always assumed that this charming canary-like bundle of energy would be a survivor, a strong species we didn’t have to worry about.

Yet now these buttercup warriors seem to be up against an enemy for which they are completely unprepared — global climate change.

Birds on the southern portions of their present distribution will fade away and those on the northern edge of the range will, hopefully, find suitable habitat farther north. Basically, we have no precise idea of the impact on our ecosystems if we lose our goldfinches along with many other species. We only know that there will be an impact.

Goldfinches have always had a short breeding season, dictated by the availability of thistle seed suitable to feed their young. Longer days cue them to return to their breeding grounds, including areas here in Western Washington. If the thistle plants disperse their seeds earlier in the season because of warmer weather, goldfinches could find themselves without the necessary food for their young.

Most of the focus thus far regarding global warming is on loss of human habitation and natural resources available for human existence. This includes massive destruction of cities, estuaries and low-lying islands as seas rise. Bird life is another important loss.

Does it matter? I encourage you to go outside sometime today. Watch for birds and listen to their songs. Does it matter to you that your grandchildren may never have the same opportunity?

When Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” sounded the wake-up call to attack the problems of pesticide use, we responded and we won. The once-threatened bald eagles have returned to our lives. Now we have a new challenge: To do whatever we can to curb global warming.

I simply can’t imagine a spring without the return of our jaunty American goldfinches.

Frances Wood can be reached at

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