People who are looking at something through binoculars always get my attention. I think you know why.
Pulling into work on a recent morning I saw such a person. Naturally, I rolled down the driver's-side window and asked the obvious, "Are you looking at birds?"
If you goWhat: Purple Martins 101
When: 7:30 a.m. Saturday, July 13
Where: The martin houses at Cantigny Golf, 27W270 Mack Road, Wheaton
Details: Ray Feld, a Cantigny volunteer and purple martin expert, will speak and offer a close-up look at purple martins
Indeed the man was, and he had a question. Earlier he'd spotted a small, bright yellow bird with some black markings. He wanted to know its name.
The gentleman was visiting from India, so many of our local birds were unfamiliar. He seemed fairly impressed by our avian attractions, especially that little yellow one.
It was an American goldfinch, a male, I told him. As we talked, several red-winged blackbirds moved closer, as if to say, "Hey, we're worth a look too!" No argument there. In fact, the man had been watching them when I first approached.
But my brief conversation that day started me thinking about goldfinches. Imagine seeing one for the first time -- as an adult!
Most of us grew up with goldfinches so we've likely forgotten the thrill of that first sighting. Now they are just part of the landscape and we tend to take them for granted. The species is found coast-to-coast in the United States and is the official state bird of Iowa, New Jersey and Washington.
Like the cardinal, our own state bird, the American goldfinch possesses that rare combination of being really common and really colorful. A male can grab the attention of anyone, birder or not. To some, it's a "wild canary." Others might assume it escaped from the local pet shop.
David Allen Sibley was no fool when he chose a goldfinch for the front and back covers of his Eastern field guide. It adds to the book's mass appeal. The handy "Birds of Chicago" also has a goldfinch cover. It shows a male and female, which is appropriate because goldfinches are almost always seen in pairs or small groups.
Accessibility is part of the bird's charm. It prefers weedy fields and brushy roadsides, but is readily attracted to backyard thistle (nyger) feeders. Black-oil sunflower seeds are popular with goldfinches, too.
Goldfinches are not especially skittish so we can watch and listen to them up close. In May I had the double pleasure of watching goldfinches share our thistle feeder with pine siskins, a fellow member of the finch family. I was curious about how long the three siskins would hang around, since they are normally off to their northern breeding grounds by March or April. As of May 26, they were still visiting my yard, a routine that began in early February!
Many other birders in the Chicago area reported pine siskins in May as well. It seems probable that the species is now nesting in the Chicago region, at least on a small scale.
Goldfinches can be observed here throughout the year. They are migratory, however, so the birds we see in winter are not necessarily the ones we admired during the summer. (This is true of our wintering robins, too.) Winter goldfinches very likely moved to this area from points north.
In fall and winter, goldfinches are inconspicuous, appearing dull and brownish. But in early spring, an amazing transformation takes place. The males start to show patches of yellow as their breeding plumage develops. They also gain their jet-black forehead feathers. Females turn greenish-yellow. For both sexes, bill color changes to orange.
One more cool fact: Goldfinch parents delay raising families until June or July so that seed crops are plentiful when it's time to feed the young. Two broods are common despite their late start to nesting.
For armchair birders, the American goldfinch will always be a favorite backyard visitor. Thistle seed is pricey, but it's worth every penny to lure these brilliant yellow comets to our gardens, decks and patios.
• Jeff Reiter's column appears monthly in the Daily Herald. You can reach him via his blog, Words on Birds.