A male American goldfinch, seen on a feeder on May 10 in Lutherville-Timonium, Md., has brighter plumage before molting and can often be confused with a female. Julio Cortez/Associated Press

Help! We have what we are certain are female goldfinches coming to our feeders but nary a male. What gives?

Thanks, Chuck Veeder

The quick answer to Chuck’s question – where did the male American goldfinches go – is that they are hiding in plain sight! Birds have to molt their feathers at least once a year, or in the case of most of our songbirds, twice. All birds have to do this because feathers will eventually wear down. There are some other advantages to changing feathers throughout the year, as well.

Feathers are made of beta-keratin, a protein that is similar to the alpha-keratin that makes mammal’s hair and nails, but it is less durable. As birds go through the year, their feathers will wear from rubbing against branches or their nest, or even just from being exposed to the elements. Having a set of fresh feathers is important for migratory species. Think about it! Who wouldn’t want “new” wings to fly on versus ones with holes in them?

Another advantage of molting is that it gives males the opportunity to change into their breeding or “alternate” plumage. While both males and females molt, in most cases it is just the males that acquire a brighter breeding plumage, thought to be an honest trait for mate attraction; that is, the better dressed the males are, the better a mate they will be because they are advertising things like their ability to find food, or their health, through the quality of their genes.

Most people know American goldfinches as bright yellow birds with black wings and a black cap, but that is only what the males look like for a few months, from about May through the fall. Once they are done breeding, goldfinches will go through a “pre-basic molt” to acquire their “basic” or non-breeding plumage. This non-breeding plumage of male goldfinches looks very similar to what we expect female goldfinches to look like.

There are advantages for the males to look more drab in the fall and winter – they won’t be as noticeable to predators. Even in basic plumage, we can still tell males apart from females by looking at a few key field marks: males will typically show brighter yellow feathers on the throat, while those are brownish-yellow on females, and the flight feathers of males are darker, almost jet black, with a mostly white wing bar, while females’ flight feathers are generally a brown-black with buffy wing bars. So study your goldfinches this winter and be ready for males to make the switch back to gold in April!

Doug,
Our 8-year-old grandson, who lives in Waldo County, loves birds and is getting good at identifying their songs by season, gender, and more. We wonder if you have any nature-related gift ideas for a great kid who has outgrown most illustrated books about birds, but is too young to join a Maine birding club.

Lucia Murdock, Unity

Nothing makes me happier than hearing about young people getting into birding! No surprise that your grandson is absorbing and growing beyond children’s books already – birding kids tend to be sponges and even outpace their mentors quickly. Giving budding birders of any age-proper tools and resources is critical, so I’ll name a few gift ideas here.

• Books: I don’t know of any hobby that has more books than birding. From ornithology texts to fictional stories, or references to how-tos, there are tons of options and birders seem just as interested in collecting them as they do seeing new species. A good field guide is arguably the most important tool for a birder, and while there are some cute little guides that highlight common species, I recommend giving even brand new birders a high-quality guide like one from Sibley, Peterson, or National Geographic. Each has its strong points, but variety is the spice of life, so get them another guide, even if they have one already. No birder will ever complain about a “new” guide.

This may be above the reading level of most 8-year-olds, but a book every Maine birder should own is the newly released Birds of Maine by the late Peter Vickery. His magnum opus is a reference (not identification) guide to Maine’s birds, literally every bird that has ever been seen in Maine. Beyond the amazingly detailed species accounts, it has sections on Maine’s ornithological history and conservation
needs, as well as visually stunning artwork by world-renowned artist Lars Jonsson and Barry van Dusen.

• Binoculars: If a field guide isn’t the most important tool for a birder, then binoculars are. These also present probably the greatest financial barrier to entry for most people, so if you are in a position to provide optics to someone without them, the value of a gift of binoculars cannot be overstated. Don’t waste money on compact pairs that are dark and likely to break. A full-sized roof-prism binocular like Nikon Monarchs are what most birders need. When picking out a pair, keep in mind that more magnification doesn’t mean they are better; often this is the opposite, especially for new birders. With more magnification comes a narrower field of view, so it becomes harder to find the bird you are looking for. Some “beginner” binoculars are as low as 4-power (4x magnification), but I would focus on something around 8x.

• Other ideas: A journal or sketchbook to make notes or drawings while in the field watching birds makes for a thoughtful gift. Rite in the Rain is a great brand that makes waterproof notepads that are especially popular among birders and would be great for young wildlife watchers. A membership to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a gift that keeps on giving as a new issue of Living Bird Magazine shows up with each season. Wing Span is a bird-focused board game that came out last year and was nearly impossible to get because of its popularity. A year later it is still a great gift (though, listed as for ages 14 and up, it might challenge younger players) and is available at many large stores!

There are tons of great birding-related gifts out there. It is hard to go wrong, especially if you can find something that ties in with other interests the person has. And finally, remember to shop local, buy used, and find ways to reduce our consumption, which ultimately will benefit birds and our planet.


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