American Goldfinch

Sporting a plumage of black wings contrasting with bright yellow body, it’s hard to miss the state bird of Iowa.  The American Goldfinch is one of the last of Iowa’s birds to build its nest in the summer, waiting for thistle plants to produce seeds which are the primary food of this stunning bird.

More information

See the American Goldfinch's profile on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website.

Photo Credits

Cover photo: By JD on Flickr
Collage Photo (above): By Richard Crossley (Richard Crossley) CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons


A goldfinch buzzed by us on our bikes,
dipping and lifting and hanging strong
in the air like a note from a trombone.
This must mean the end of summer.

There are so many noisy insects in the red river gorge. 
I face-planted a spider web at 6 am and heard an owl last night.

The goldfinch is not really gold,
in truth it is bright yellow.
Its beak is orange, its wings are black,
a sadly misnamed fellow.

It's very fond of films with gold,
and songs by Shirley Bassey.
It dreams of killing Bond's best girl,
in dreams, this bird is sassy!

When Lulu sang of golden guns
the goldfinch thought "like me!"
But the truth is all of Iowa knows
he'll never achieve true villainy.
One week after my uncle Piet died
suddenly on the screen of a window
I'd always kept closed, 
but was, on this day, open,
a goldfinch,
it's eye on me, staring, nodding
it's me, it's o.k., we're all right.


Very. Yellow.
Flit, flit.
Dive flit.
Empty feeder...

Tweet tweet
teewt teewt

I am the goldfinch. I am the walrus.

Goldfinches flutter in
Land on the feeder,
Soon gone to for other
Tasty treets.

Bird Watching in Summer

I love them, with just one rub.
I can't see a cardinal 
Without thinking "Go Cubs!"

Seen from the air, the “rich coast” is a rough-hewn jewel. On the ground, it is a busy rainbow: thin neck of the American hourglass through which all migratory species must pass. Hello, wood thrush! I saw you last in New Hampshire. Ruby-throat, did you visit me in Hadley last year? Oriole, I have never been to Baltimore, but maybe you’ve perched in Boston? Old friend red-tail, it’s so good to see you. I will look for you in May when I am back and you have also flown home to nest.

Cheeky little bird!
If I let you in, would you
know what to do next?

Found across North America, like beer, cheap motels, and Pokemon Go. People call them wild canaries, like some call the Roma gypsies, a thing that is ignorant and intolerant—they are in the finch family…as their name (duh) suggests. Those in northern regions are mostly migratory, while southern natives are mostly residential (like Jewish grandmas in Fort Lauderdale, you know, you have one). Also like Jewish grandmas in Fort Lauderdale, the female American Goldfinch likes it further south than the males in winter. Younger males like to winter further north than adults—they nobody’s fool, they know where the action at. Their flight call sounds something like po-ta-to-chip, po-ta-to-chip, po-ta-to-chip. Eating thistle and using thistledown to line their nests, they bed their mates in mid summer when thistle abounds, laying 5 pale-blue or greenish-blue eggs. In 12 days the eggs hatch and 12 days after that the nestlings fledge. Unlike many birds, American Goldfinches molt completely not just once but TWICE a year, in spring and fall. American Goldfinches will use almost any feeder, even one where they have to hang upside down to eat! They have been known to burrow under the snow to stay warm of a cold winter’s night.

When it sings, it sings something.
When it flies, it flies somewhere. 
When it coaches youth volleyball 
it focus on defense. "That's how to
win championships," it whistles. 

You sit at the feeder, as if you own the place. You daintily pick at the seeds, choosing the very best one. When finished, you are off, flying that dipsy doodle flight.

For hours, the flowers were enough. 
Before the flowers, Adam had been enough. 
Before Adam, just being a rib was enough. 
Just being inside Adam’s body, near his heart, enough. 
Enough to be so near his heart, enough 
to feel that sweet steady rhythm, enough 
to be a part of something bigger was enough. 
And before the rib, being clay was enough.
And before clay, just being earth was enough. 
And before earth, being nothing was enough. 
But then enough was no longer enough. 
The flowers bowed their heads, as if to say, enough, 
and so Eve, surrounded by peonies, and alone enough, 
wished very hard for something, and the wish was enough 
to make the pinecone grow wings; the wish was enough 
to point to the sky, say bird, and wait for something to sing.

Did I teach fire? Then why these
visits to my innards from the yellow
little birds? Brown-headed cowbirds
lay their eggs in goldfinch nests,
but as their hosts eat mostly seeds
and only several bugs, the cowbird
babies rarely thrive. Since that is
fair but brutal, I eat only seeds so as
to feed the ghost finch beaks that,
as eagles’ tiny henchmen, eat
my organs in the night. It’s worth
the truce with Zeus. It hurts but it is
not the worst. True my fire teaching
has grown old, my coals are cold,
but eating all this finch seed has
shaded me a glad and ghostly gold.

The Year of the Goldfinches 

There were two that hung and hovered
by the mud puddle and the musk thistle.
Flitting from one splintered fence post
to another, bathing in the rainwater’s glint like it was mirror to some other universe where things were easier
than the place I lived. I’d watch for them:
the bright peacocking male, the low-watt
female on each morning walk, days spent digging for some sort of elusive answer to the question my curving figure made. Later, I learned that they were a symbol for resurrection. Of course they were, my two yellow-winged twins teaching me to feast on thorns 
and like it. 

Rob Lowe fells goldfinch
in charity golf tourney
quits the game for good

Above fields of gold
the finch gains fortune
rarely seen by naked IA eye
As Iowa kids dutifully
We draw, paint sculpt the state bird
Hoping one day for the 
Serendipity of a glimpse
As our naked IA eyes wade through
Sparrows, robins, pigeons and
Eagles, hawks, cardinals, blue jays
In city or countryside. 
In the west we never see one.
In the east some dress to be one
An elegant Herky Hawk
Distinguished in its black fascinator
Come out, you living thing, and perform
For us.

Sporting-like TRUMP, a yellow head of shine, a plumage of black wings needed to win any election! Oh American Goldfinch-where is your greatness?Contrasting with bright yellow body, it’s hard to miss your mouth in the state bird of Iowa. Oh, American Goldfinch where is your greatness? Is this one, one of the last of Iowa’s racist birds? A bird to build its nest in the summer only for white feathers? I am waiting for thistle plants to produce seeds which are all different in color-the primary food for all of us! Oh, American Goldfinch- this stunning bird. (Borrowed Chirp!)

A black-winged goldfinch
flits from feeder to puddle.
Beak dips, lifts, dips, lifts.

Goldfinch fly
But you cannot hide

Handsome, feathered muse.
Bright acrobatic pilot 
who swallowed the sun.

This text is from a journal entry my late Grandmother, an avid bird owner and watcher, wrote twenty-one years ago today on September 13, 1995. 

"I got up at 5:00 am. I could not sleep. I loaded the dishwasher, washed some silverware, etc.

Went to Hyvee for supplies. I had cantaloupe, toast, and milk for breakfast also a sweet roll. I fed & watered the birds and Calico earlier."

Lessons from the American Goldfinch 

Mornings, when I rise, 
evenings, when I batten down the house like a tallship.

The bird swings a wide, 
golden arc around our home.

O what the goldfinch 
can teach us about transformation.

For example, dawn 
will open like a throat, 
sky swallows darkness.
becomes cotton candy colored, 
something to decorate 
with ribbons of song.

For example, winter 
is not a time to be bold. Molt. Travel 
far away from where you 
have moored your ship.

And when the fog settles,
lean into its blur. Likely, there will be another body
whose heart, buried in golden feathers, can warm you.

I have never seen a goldfinch. That's sad but true. He's never seen a purple cow. But I have seen goldfinches though. Several in fact. In flight in feather. I would like to be as naked as a bird. Who doesn't have something with the word naked in it. I asked our mayor to let me speak at the end of the meeting. I was sitting in the back and tried to take off my clothes. They put me in the Story County Jail. Were there any birds in there? I'm somewhat of a nudist. Coneflower seeds are a delicious treat for the goldfinch. Goldfinches are a lovely yellow. They are. Perfect. I don't understand why I've been all over the world and never seen them. Come to my backyard. Plant coneflowers. When I was a child I thought goldfinches were escaped canaries. Like canaries were born indoors. To escape. When they sing, they're outdoors.

99 problems and a finch is one.

The golden girl broods over all these flings of joy 
In nests we never see on eggs unrobinly drab
Painters and states claim the noisy garish male
But the leaps of joy the darts to the sky
knows no sex but yes yes yes 

The last noise to reverberate off her ear drum
Was the snap, crackle, and pop 
Of her neck bone 
As it broke against the pristine glass window

Nancy texted me a few months ago, on a late spring morning, "I've got something for you." 
When I arrived at her house for coffee,
she handed me a small bundle wrapped in paper towels.
"It hit the sun room window this morning. I heard the thud and found it on the deck. I thought you might like it."
I thanked her and when I got home, unsure about what to do with the small, still body, I zipped it into a sandwich baggie and put it in the freezer. 
I'm not a taxidermist myself.
Though I felt bad about it, I finally threw it away last week. 
I needed the space for my leftover roasted chicken. 

The spotted deer are given 
their marching orders from the more
dominant samba deer but
the goldfinch answers only
to the onyx jurassic
of her heart.

Finches flit, finches dart 
Finches, lightning swift,
Pretend seriousness
When I think their point
Is to make me smile

Up high birds shall fly 
Goldfinches light up the sky 
How's that for Haiku

The American Goldfinch, flits the edge of a prairie,
Singing as it gleans and does not tarry.

This wild canary of the thistledown,
Gold bird with barred-black wing and a darken crown.

A diminutive ambassador of our state,
Seen along roadside fields or a license plate.

Goldfinch poem pinch, 
running out of time
for a line, 
a sign devine, 
that makes September's sense

Among the thistles
Flash of yellow
A caller to be seen
When winter covers all
A light
A reminder
Our bird revives the serene

I love tiny yellow birds, no, birds of any color flitting around settling in the trees and bushes where they look like nests of sparkly, flashing jewels. I hope they're careful. Be sure to hide quietly. If killers come.

The goldfinch 
does seldom tarry. 
In my youth it was known 
as the wild canary.

Goldfinch in the spring,
Dandelion on the wing, 
But no roots hold him.