When I was a little kid, I didn’t know many birds. I could recognize a robin or a house sparrow. When I was about eight years old and staying on my grandparents’ farm, I knew what pigeons looked like. I was even allowed to shoot them with a .410 shotgun. They were very good to eat, as I recall. These were grain-fed farm pigeons, not city pigeons raised on pizza scraps and leftover french fries.
I even shot a few starlings on the farm. My grandfather believed that if you shot it, you ate it–so I actually plucked and gutted several starlings. As I recall, they had a much heavier coat of down than chickens. Grandma would singe them over the coal stove in the kitchen to remove the down and then roast them whole. I have no clear memory of what they tasted like. But I do remember that I ate them without complaint, so they couldn’t have been too awful.
When I wasn’t on the farm, I lived in an isolated subdivision within the corporate limits of Des Plaines. We were well out from town and totally surrounded by open fields. Trees were scarce, but we did have two patches of willows and cottonwoods. They grew in narrow strips on steep slopes between the railroad tracks and Weller Creek. We called one of these strips the Jungle and the other the Bird Jungle.
I do not know who decided on these names, but I do remember that in the Bird Jungle we used to see the gloriously beautiful birds we called wild canaries. Wild canaries had bright yellow bodies, black skullcaps, black wings crossed with white stripes, and black tails.
Now I know them as American goldfinches, and I’m supposed to think of them as nothing special. They are common birds. They nest in the city and in most every forest preserve and in any patch of trees in rural Illinois. They are more common in summer, though you can find them year-round.
But for me, they still carry the emotional freight of those wild canaries. When I was eight years old, those canaries flitting through the trees turned a strip of land along the railroad tracks into a tropical rain forest. I was used to dark, somber birds, and these bright yellow beauties made me realize that actual nature existed not just in books or in places such as Brazil and Alaska, but in Des Plaines as well.
What I didn’t know then was that those goldfinches in the Bird Jungle connected with birds all over the world. The American goldfinch is scientifically named Carduelis tristis. The genus name comes from the Latin carduus, which means thistle. Thistle seeds are a favorite food of goldfinches. People who are seriously into backyard bird feeding put out thistle seed–which, by the way, is very expensive–if they want to attract goldfinches. Tristis means sad. It comes from one of the call notes of the species, which has a rather plaintive tone.
Carduelis tristis breeds across southern Canada as far west as Alberta, and its winter range extends a short way into northern Mexico, but it is mainly a bird of the good old U.S.A. It nests and/or winters in every one of the lower 48 states.
Goldfinches are easy to recognize, even in flight. As they fly, they rise and then fall in a looping arc. At the bottom of each fall they bound up so rapidly it looks like they are bouncing off some invisible trampoline in the sky.
The short, conical beak marks the American goldfinch as a seedeater, although they are known to eat small insects, and especially insect larvae and eggs. Like many other seedeaters, they are gregarious. They live in flocks all year except for the breeding season, and even then their territorial behavior is limited. Males will drive other males away from their nests, and females will treat other females the same way. But once the nest has been built and the eggs laid, their aggressiveness declines rapidly.
Where food is abundant, the birds will build nests quite close together. One investigator found 66 nests in a 19-acre woodlot in southern Michigan.
Goldfinches are noted for delaying breeding until midsummer. At Somme Woods this year I was still seeing birds in flocks as late as the beginning of July. This delay seems to be related to the importance of seeds in their diet. By July many plants have gone to seed, so there is a lot more food around than there is in May or June.
After laying her eggs, the female goldfinch spends about 95 percent of her time incubating them. Goldfinches are frequent victims of cowbirds, since their edge habitat is also prime cowbird territory, but this habit of close sitting probably provides a degree of protection. Cowbird females need to find unattended nests to lay their eggs in, and goldfinch eggs are rarely unattended.
The female can spend all that time on the nest because the male feeds her. He arrives periodically with a crop full of partially digested seeds that he regurgitates into her beak. She welcomes him by fluttering her wings and tipping her head back and opening her beak wide. This is the same posture that the nestlings will adopt when they are looking for a meal.
There are six finches of the genus Carduelis in North America. The pine siskin is mainly a North Woods bird that we see here in winter. Common and hoary redpolls nest up on the tundra but move south in winter. We see the common here most every winter, but the hoary gets this far south only rarely.
In the southwest there is the lesser goldfinch, and California has Lawrence’s goldfinch, a species that nests only in that state and winters in Arizona.
But the genus Carduelis is almost cosmopolitan. The wild canaries of my childhood have relatives on every continent save Antarctica and Australia. Actually, there are now Carduelis finches displaying their bouncing flight in Australia as well. The European goldfinch and the green finch were both introduced there in the 19th century, and both are comfortably established now.
There are a dozen Carduelis finches in South America, and among them they cover most of the continent. The southernmost is the black-chinned siskin, which lives in Tierra del Fuego and on the Falkland Islands.
Carduelis birds have always been big favorites with people who enjoy imprisoning small wild birds in tiny cells in their living rooms. These finches are wonderful singers. Our goldfinches make singing a major part of their courtship behavior. Sometimes several males will gather in one tree and sing like crazy. Some observers have suggested, only slightly fancifully, that the males are having a song contest, and that the females, like groupies, will choose their mates according to who sings best.
Native American songbirds can no longer be legally kept as cage birds, but Carduelis finches from elsewhere in the world are major articles of trade in the pet business. Some of them are suffering for their singing ability. In Costa Rica the yellow-bellied siskin and the lesser goldfinch have both been seriously reduced by trappers for the pet trade.
Trade in finches is largely unregulated. The pet business successfully lobbied for exemptions for this group in laws governing importation of exotic animals.
The species that may be suffering most from this trade is the red siskin, a native of Venezuela and Colombia. Bird dealers want red siskins because they can be crossbred with the closely related canary–the all-time favorite caged bird. The cross produces canaries with a bit of the siskin’s red coloring. These apparently fetch a premium price from fanciers of imprisoned birds.
The situation of the red siskin has grown so desperate that the recently published field guide A Guide to the Birds of Venezuela by Rodolphe Meyer de Schauensee and William H. Phelps Jr. provides the following entry to describe the range of the bird in Venezuela: “Upper tropical zone. The northern Cordillera region (no exact localities are given as the bird is much persecuted by bird catchers because of its popularity as a cage bird).”
My suspicion is that if people would open their eyes to the wild canaries that live all around them, they would have less need for captive birds stolen from the tropics.