I have always been aware of the gift of birdsong and what it does for the heart and mind. Growing up in California, in a sparsely populated remote canyon with a natural salmon-run river, I was keenly observant of the behaviors and sounds each local bird would display, and I innately knew what it meant to my world. I remember those long days of lying under big sprawling oak trees and towering bull pines and listening for every sound and watching every movement of the birds that called those trees home. I learned over those years to recognize the differences between song and alarm calls, and what kind of dance or motion each bird would use to chase off predators or attract a potential mate. Each sound, each movement, was always in relation to the natural order.
Living in Lyons, with its surrounding natural beauty, offers a bounty of birdlife and wildlife. Each season brings travelers of the animal and bird kingdom to our front door, giving us an opportunity to become observers of the natural world.
Although we are sheltering in place, there is much to celebrate, especially the return of spring–a season of birds doing their dances and songs and changing over to vivid breeding colors to impress their potential mates. Now is the time to celebrate the arrival of a very special bird in my life, the American Goldfinch.
A regular arrival in late winter/early spring is the spectacularly colored American Goldfinch. During the early part of spring, perhaps even when there is still snow on the ground, the male will be noticeable as a brilliant flash of yellow in the trees in your yard. As spring progresses with warmer days, like most birds, the American Goldfinch will partially molt, which is a process of replacing its feathers. Its body feathers will change, but not the tail or wing feathers. It will then achieve its beautiful shade of deep lemon yellow.
The pigments in Goldfinch feathers are carotenoids, which help to indicate a healthy immune system. Therefore, the more vibrant color of the male, the more appealing he appears to the female.
In the last month, I have experienced a 30-plus community of American Goldfinches (I did count them!) up in the trees of my own neighborhood, singing with great gusto and hanging on the thistle socks. Each passing week from March onward, their color changes to an even deeper shade of yellow–a sure sign of the approaching breeding season. My own excitement grows as I realize their songs will become more musical and, ultimately, that spring is in full swing.
The songs of the American Goldfinch are truly lovely. The male of the species not only has the bold colors, he often sings the strongest, using a varied list of twitters and warbles that are often long and loud yet delicate. They also have contact calls, alarm calls, and even a courtship call they make when they land near a female during breeding season. They are happily assertive, and flock together along with other birds such as the Lesser Goldfinch, House Finch, and Pine Siskin.
If you feed seasonal and local birds, this particular Goldfinch is quite fond of nyjer (thistle) seeds hung in a thistle sock from a shepherd’s hook or nearby tree branch. They also love sunflower seeds out of the shell. Keeping a few shallow dishes of clean water around also encourages visits from all birds. If you plan on having a seed feeder on or near a window, consider putting stickers on your window. I use a set of small prayer flags to deflect the mirror image of the outside environment, preventing injuries from birds hitting the window.
While the “safer at home” policy continues here for us all, one of the wonderful opportunities we all can explore is bird watching in our own backyards. Spring is the time when many different species show up and the mating season begins in earnest. Grab your binoculars and your bird book and learn how to identify the birds in your yard. You will have more fun than you might realize! Watching and studying your backyard birds is calming, even meditative. Birdsong lifts the spirit, helping us to remain grounded in our own personal relationship with nature.
Sally Van Meter is a Grammy-Award-winning musician who has lived in Lyons for over twenty years. She also makes short films and practices photography in her spare time. Photo: Jeremy Rosenshine.