June 23, 2018
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Goldfinches are an inspiration for a lifetime of bird-watching

Courtesy of Scott Cowger
Courtesy of Scott Cowger
American goldfinches in their winter plumage at a bird feeder.
By Bob Duchesne, Special to the BDN

On Monday, I stepped out of my house to the cacophony of 50 goldfinches and pine siskins chattering in the trees. The truth is, you can blame American goldfinches for this new birding column.

When I was in the first grade, my father briefly taught high school history in Gorham, N.H. I remember watching the goldfinches coming out to feed on the sodden lawn after the rain. Their color was such a bright yellow and the wet grass was so green, I was hooked on birds for life.

A few years later, my first Boy Scout merit badge was on “bird study” — significant because that’s half the total of the two badges I earned before my troop abruptly disbanded.

Youth is distracting. For a long time, birding took a back seat to career and social life. Well, actually it was more like birding got locked in the trunk. The full passion didn’t revive until I permanently settled in the Bangor area in the mid-1980s. Then, it rekindled with a vengeance.

I joined the Penobscot Valley Chapter of Maine Audubon, took on a few leadership responsibilities, and started guiding — first as a volunteer for Audubon, later professionally. I spearheaded development of the Maine Birding Trail, which was formally adopted by the state in 2009, and wrote a statewide guidebook published by Down East Books. All this was going on during the 17 years I spent waking up Maine as the morning host on Q106.5 radio, and the seven more recent years that I’ve been serving as a legislator in the Maine House of Representatives.

In the battle for my soul, the goldfinches won.

But enough about me, let’s talk about you. Did you know that Mainers rank first in the nation in the percentage of residents who actively watch wildlife? The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service surveys America’s interaction with critters every five years and the most recent survey revealed that 57 percent of Mainers watch wildlife, compared with a national average of 31 percent.

It makes sense. Rural states have more wildlife to watch. Only 34 percent of Massachusetts residents report a fondness for watching wildlife. New Jersey checks in at 23 percent. When it comes specifically to watching birds, 39 percent of Mainers express interest. We’re second only to Montana, which beat us by 1 measly percentage point. So share this column with everyone you know. Next time, I think we can beat them.

You could call it the All-American goldfinch. This little fella is so widespread, it’s the official state bird of New Jersey, Iowa and Washington. It’s in a family of 140 small finches worldwide, a family that also includes pine siskins and common redpolls.

Goldfinches love Maine and will stick around all winter if Mother Nature allows it. Too much snow or too much chill drives them south. They are familiar to backyard bird feeders, and they are partial to thistle seed, also called nyjer. Their wandering habits can drive feeder watchers nuts. The well-stocked thistle feeder can hang for months, ignored, and then suddenly be swarmed.

Birds nest during the time of year when there is plenty of food for the nestlings. Insect eaters nest in May and June because that’s when food is most plentiful. Goldfinches nest later in summer, when seeds are maturing. They are one of the latest breeding songbirds in North America, laying eggs in late July or even August.

Dormant feeders can become suddenly active when there are hungry mouths to feed. Then the feeders go quiet again while there is ample natural food available, only to go crazy at the first snowstorm.

Though they are now in their dull yellow plumage for the winter, there are still plenty of goldfinches around, spreading a little happiness wherever they go. In 1902, Frank Chapman wrote one of the earliest guidebooks: Handbook of Birds of Eastern North America. Of the goldfinch, he wrote: “Their flight is expressive of their joyous nature, and as they bound through the air they hum a gay ‘per-chic-o-ree.’ Their love song is delivered with an ecstasy and abandon which carries them off their feet, and they circle over the fields sowing the air with music.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Bob Duchesne serves in the Maine Legislature, is president of the Penobscot Valley Chapter of Maine Audubon, created the Maine Birding Trail and is the author of the trail guidebook of the same name. He can be reached at duchesne@midmaine.com.

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