Black Squirrels

“Mom, there’s a black squirrel in the flat area.”

A black gray squirrel

A black gray squirrel (Photo by Robert Taylor on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

It was 5:30 p.m. on a balmy day in early March and my son Dave and I were fixing dinner in the kitchen.

I rushed to the window, grabbed my binoculars, and called my husband Bruce to come and see the unusual eastern gray squirrel.

In the meantime, the squirrel had climbed up the back slope and we thought it would come to our bird feeder area below our porch steps. Instead, it veered over to the far edge of my backyard herb garden beside the feeders and ran off. A few minutes later Bruce spotted it below the slope near our old springhouse before it disappeared.

During our 46 years on our mountain we had never seen a black gray squirrel, although I knew there was a population on the Penn State Altoona campus at the base of the Allegheny Front. And later, our caretaker Troy told us he had never seen any black squirrels on our Brush Mountain, the westernmost ridge in the Ridge-and-Valley Province, but he added that there was a population in a small village at the base of our mountain on the Logan Valley side.

The next time I saw the black squirrel, spring had officially arrived even though it was 17 degrees and the ground had frozen hard again. I stepped outside in the early morning and glimpsed the squirrel at the bottom of a backyard black walnut tree. Spotting me, it ran downslope to the flat area and up into the woods on Laurel Ridge.

On April 3, I again glimpsed the black squirrel in the flat area at 7:30 a.m. A gray squirrel, one of the army of 10 raiding our feeders every day, chased it back up into the woods.

Two days later, after returning from my morning walk, I stopped to admire the blooming hyacinths and daffodils in our backyard. That’s when I noticed the black squirrel crossing the flat area. I watched it through my binoculars while it searched for food beneath the leaf cover at the edge of the woods, and paused a couple times to scratch itself.

A gray squirrel approached a black squirrel

A gray squirrel approached a black squirrel (Photo by Eyesplash on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Once a gray squirrel approached but did not chase it. Nevertheless, the black squirrel retreated but continued foraging. Next it climbed on to fallen trees, using them as runways. Once it sat up on its hindquarters and I saw that it had an orange underbelly. Then it continued slowly on its trek over to the springhouse and wetland where I lost sight of it among the cattails.

Although I continued looking for it throughout the following months, I never saw it again. I figured that a predator had caught it or that it had been visiting and had moved on. But last November one of our archery hunters saw it still living nearby.

Our black squirrel is one of three possible color phases of the eastern gray squirrel.  In Pennsylvania most eastern gray squirrels are gray, but there are also brown-black gray squirrels (our “black” squirrel) and jet black gray squirrels. Canadian researchers, writing in the Journal of Heredity in 2009, studied the color variations in the coat of the eastern gray squirrel by inspecting the hair from all three types under the microscope and found that the eastern gray squirrel “had 6 distinct hair types, compared with 4 from the brown-black and only 1 from the jet black.”

An example of a squirrel with a grizzled coat

An example of a squirrel with a grizzled coat (Photo by Eugenia Vlasova on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

“These different hair types,” they wrote, “give the gray an overall grizzled appearance with a white underbelly, the brown-black an overall dark brown appearance with an orange underbelly, and the jet black a uniform black appearance.”

Or, in the words of Dr. Carolyn Mahan, professor of biology at Penn State Altoona, “The genetic basis of this color phase was researched and determined to be a simple dominant/recessive interaction. Black color is dominant, gray is homozygous recessive, and it sounds like you have a heterozygous individual.”

A brown-black squirrel on the Penn State Altoona campus

A brown-black squirrel on the Penn State Altoona campus (Photo by Dr. Laura Palmer, used with permission)

Mahan adds that the brown/black squirrels have been on the campus at least since 1999 when she began teaching there. She says that, “It is not that they ‘arrived’ there. It is just that the allele [one of a group of genes that occur alternately at a place] for the black color is present in that population. It seems that most of the ‘black’ squirrels are heterozygous for the trait so, if you look at them in bright sunlight, they appear dark dark brown. It seems on our campus there are an equal number of gray and black squirrels.”

Scientific descriptions aside, black gray squirrels are more common farther north while gray squirrels dominate southern areas in the eastern United States and Canada.

Some researchers believe that before Europeans arrived in North America, black gray squirrels were predominant throughout eastern North America because forests were old and thick and provided better cover for that color phase. But once the forests were cut, they hypothesize, gray squirrels became the dominant type throughout their range.

A black gray squirrel in Canada

A black gray squirrel in Canada (Photo by DaPuglet on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Another, earlier study in Canada in 1978, where black gray squirrels dominate, found that they had “significantly lower heat loss” than gray squirrels during the winter which they thought explained why black gray squirrels were common where winters were colder and there was a constant snow cover despite the fact that a black coat would not provide camouflage for them in a white world.

Native black gray squirrels live in Ontario and Quebec and northern Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Pennsylvania. But there have been so many releases of these squirrels both in the United States and England, usually courtesy of Ontario, that it is difficult to sort the naturally occurring from the released ones.

In Britain they were released at the end of the 19th century and 18 from Canada arrived at the National Zoo during Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency. Canada also sent 10 to Kent, Ohio in 1961.

The home of the black squirrels, Marysville, Kansas

The home of the black squirrels, Marysville, Kansas (Photo by Jimmy Emerson, DVM, on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Strangest of all is the so-called “Home of the Black Squirrels” out in the plains in Marysville, Kansas. Supposedly the squirrels escaped from a traveling circus or maybe a gypsy encampment in the late 1920s. Marysville even holds an annual Black Squirrel Celebration.

The black squirrels in Washington, D.C. have spread over the city, and they’ve done the same in other towns and cities where they were released. Apparently, they are safer from their predators, which are primarily birds of prey. And squirrel hunters, eager to bag a black gray squirrel, cannot shoot them in such places.

I checked a couple online sources regarding black gray squirrels in Pennsylvania and compiled a list of cities and towns where black squirrels live such as Fairmont Park in Philadelphia, the Haverford College campus, which has so many that they’ve adopted Black Squirrels as their sports mascot, and the eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh.

A.D. Plummer, who says he hunts and fishes every day in central Pennsylvania, according to the Answers section of the Field and Stream website, claimed he had never seen a black squirrel there until 2009 when he saw two in two places 30 miles apart.

A brown-black squirrel photographed in Goddard Park, Chester County, PA

A brown-black squirrel photographed in Goddard Park, Chester County, PA (Photo by Brian Henderson on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

This provoked several more comments over the next few years. S. Testy, who lives in Enola, Cumberland County, also in central Pennsylvania, wrote in 2009, “There’s a pak of black squirrels that live on Valley Road and North Enola Drive…I’ve seen several out at one time.”

M.J. Frazier in 2012 reported from western Pennsylvania that a small colony nested in their neighborhood and liked bird seeds but stayed away from the gray squirrels.

“The squirrels are solid black and look very kinetic as they move about,” Frazier reported. “They will not come to the feeder close to the house [which probably explains why ‘our’ black squirrel ignored our feeders], but [to] one in the yard about 30 yards away which is stocked with black oil sunflower seeds.”

Rudy Glove, writing in 2015, added “Black squirrels everywhere now.’

Well, not quite everywhere. On the website in answer to a hunter’s question about where he can find black squirrels, it looks as if the largest numbers still live in the wild across the northern tier of the commonwealth.

One hunter found black squirrels scattered in five different locations over four counties—Lycoming, Clinton, Potter and Tioga.

Another reported three blacks to one gray in Cook Forest, Clarion County, adding that one day he counted five different black squirrels.

Several were seen near Dubois in Clearfield County and a couple hunters claimed they were common near Kinzua Dam in the Allegheny National Forest. Two hunters mentioned Pike County in northeastern Pennsylvania, and another Brookville in Jefferson County near Treasure Lake.

Whether all these squirrels were coal black, brown-black, or both is not clear except for those reported by M.J. Frazier, but S. Testy does question articles that say only one gray squirrel in 10,000 is black and suspects, at least here in Pennsylvania, that that is a low estimate.


Weird Winter

The weird winter of 2017 had thaws longer and warmer than freezes. Our white nights of bright moonlight shining on snow were scarce. It was an old person’s winter lacking the usual ice and snow that often makes for hazardous walking. Since I am an old person, I should have been grateful but I wasn’t because rain and above average temperatures most of January brought out the ticks.

An eastern towhee taken in winter in southeastern Pennsylvania

An eastern towhee taken in winter in southeastern Pennsylvania (Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Near the end of January, when the thermometer fell below freezing for a few days, a male eastern towhee appeared in our bird feeding area and stayed for a short while. Never before had I seen a towhee at our feeders in winter.

Our feeder visitor used our old Christmas tree, which we had laid out below our back porch, as cover and he called “toe-hee” several times. His robust reddish-brown, black and white body was a striking contrast to the smaller, brown and gray birds feeding on the ground around him.

On the third day of his visit he sang his “drink your tea,” undoubtedly his swan song since that was the last time we saw him. Maybe he sensed the imminent six-inch snowstorm, but he should have waited until February because on the first of the month it warmed up to 48 degrees and most of the snow melted.

Once again we were back to a snow-less, beige, black, and brown forest with touches of evergreen. On Groundhog Day Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow and predicted six more weeks of winter. I was dubious of his claim. By February 6 it smelled, looked and sounded like spring as pileated woodpeckers drummed and northern cardinals, black-capped chickadees and tufted titmice sang.

Two chipmunks in Pennsylvania

Two chipmunks in Pennsylvania (Photo by Jim, the Photographer on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Two chipmunks joined the feeder birds in the morning and two more chased below the guesthouse porch, clearly in courtship mode, as the temperature rose to 56 degrees. I predicted an increase in chipmunk numbers for the year, not only because of the huge acorn crop the previous fall, but because the mild February would give them plenty of time to breed.

“Nature’s pruners” worked overtime as “March” winds ripped through a week of February days and nights, and fallen limbs and dead trees littered the trails. The winds were followed one night by an almost unprecedented February thunderstorm that began with claps of thunder and streaks of lightning and ended with pings of sleet on our bow window as the temperature dropped below freezing.

During the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), scheduled as a mid-winter count February 17 through 20, we had the best weather ever for that time of year. Unlike other years, when the trails were icy or deep in snow, the ground was open, and I was able to wander much farther than during previous GBBCs.

The first day of the GBBC, full of expectation, I hiked up a path-less section of Sapsucker Ridge, but except for distant woodpecker drumming, I neither saw nor heard any birds. Even the spruce grove was quiet.

A white-throated sparrow photographed during a Great Backyard Bird Count

A white-throated sparrow photographed during a Great Backyard Bird Count (Photo by Stephen Little on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

However, when I reached the Far Field, six dark-eyed juncos flushed from the side of Pennyroyal Trail. I listened to a pair of chickadees counter singing, heard a downy woodpecker drumming, and saw a couple white-throated sparrows lurking in the barberry shrubs at the far end of the Far Field.

From there I walked to the Second Thicket and heard a pileated woodpecker drumming. It seemed to be woodpecker-drumming weather, and the pileateds sounded like the drum roll of a marching band. I wondered how far pileated drumming carried, because beyond the Second Thicket halfway down another ridge, I heard another pileated, and on Coyote Bench still another. It was as if the whole mountain was a pileated band, drumming in an early spring.

By mid-afternoon it was 57 degrees, yet my bird species’ list was sparse despite the miles I had walked. Near our feeders and on them were more bird species than I’d seen on my entire hike.

The next day was even warmer, reaching 67 degrees, yet it felt strange. Even though it was as warm as late March, no spring birds had returned. All I heard or saw were pileateds on another long walk in another part of the mountain, an area full of brush that usually held small birds.

Two Canada geese flying overhead

Two Canada geese flying overhead (Photo by Craig Bennett on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

On the third day of the GBBC, it was warm, overcast and breezy and two Canada geese croaked past over Sapsucker Ridge at 7:15 in the morning. They could have been part of the local flock way ahead of their usual 10:00 a.m. flyover or possibly early migrants lost from a larger flock.

As I started on my walk for the day, I paused to watch a pair of white-breasted nuthatches chase a downy woodpecker from a yard black walnut tree.

Then on I walked in Sunday’s silence and, at the entrance to Bird Count Trail, a tufted titmouse scolded, throwing its voice in every direction, starting quietly and getting progressively louder as a male downy woodpecker foraged quietly on a nearby tree.

A red-bellied woodpecker called from Greenbrier Trail followed by a pileated. Slowly I climbed up Dogwood Knoll to Sapsucker Ridge as the wind picked up. A pair of turkey vultures floated overhead—the first migrants of the season and three weeks earlier than usual.

A turkey vulture flying over Plummer’s Hollow

A turkey vulture flying over Plummer’s Hollow (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

A red-tailed hawk flashed past, but it was probably our resident red-tail enjoying the wind. Then a third turkey vulture appeared, reminding me that the Winter Raptor Survey statewide recorded the highest number of turkey vultures ever, although we didn’t see any on our count in nearby Sinking Valley.

By afternoon, it was 62 degrees on the veranda, and Bruce and I sat there, soaking up the sun for a winter that might or might not return. Our resident chipmunk, which has its den hole at the far end of our veranda, approached my feet and then Bruce’s, sniffing his fur-lined slippers before running off. Maybe it was trying to figure out what kind of creature the fake fur was.

The weather was still beautiful, clear and warm the last day of the GBBC. I was hoping to see or hear birds, but I walked a totally silent, bird-less Ten Springs Trail and up a bird-less road. But chipmunks mate-chased throughout the forest.

Even our feeder birds had dwindled—six juncos instead of the usual 40 and no cardinals, goldfinches or blue jays, all of which had been there the previous days. Were they as flummoxed as I was over the “winter” weather or was the open ground providing more natural food for them?

A winter wren taken in February in Delaware

A winter wren taken in February in Delaware (Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

All in all I counted 22 species, the lowest number ever despite the turkey vultures. Winter bird diversity continues to dwindle from GBBC to GBBC. Last winter I found no brown creepers, winter wrens, or golden-crowned kinglets, usually dependable GBBC species here.

Still the warm weather continued. The next day as I walked up First Field Trail, I noticed fresh turkey scat. When I started along the Far Field Road, the leader of a flock of wild turkeys saw me before I saw it. They rushed across the road and out of sight so quickly that I didn’t count them thoroughly, although there were at least 30, giving me species number 23 for the mountain but too late for the GBBC.

I sat on Alan’s Bench and watched as a chickadee extracted cone scales from a low-hanging Norway spruce bough with a cluster of cones at its tip. Then the chickadee landed on a nearby branch to extract the paired seeds from the scale. Silently it did this three times before calling “dee-dee-dee” and flying away. Observing bird behavior is always more rewarding to me than counting species.

Off and on I thought I heard tundra swans, but they must have been above the thin cloud cover. Still, I was eager to see those flying angels and early harbingers of spring. As I descended First Field, near the powerline right-of-way, I stood in the wind and counted 160 tundra swans heading northwest.

A mourning cloak in Plummer’s Hollow

A mourning cloak in Plummer’s Hollow (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The unseasonable weather continued. On the 24th our son Dave reported the first mourning cloak butterfly on Sapsucker Ridge, a full month ahead of our earliest date. It was 78 degrees by mid-afternoon, and later we learned that 4000 temperature records had been broken for this date throughout northern North America.

The first fox sparrows arrived from the south on the 26th, en route to the north, and a pair of mourning doves billed and cooed for 20 minutes on the ground below the feeder.  The following day I watched them copulating on an ash tree limb.

Spring was definitely in the air. Punxsutawney Phil had called it very wrong, at least for February, and, as it turned out, for March as well.

It was indeed an old person’s winter, but whether it was an anomaly or a portent of winters to come remains to be seen.


Our Noisy World

I used to fear the wind, especially when it roared on top of Sapsucker Ridge. But ever since Interstate 99 was opened, directly beneath the ridge, the wind has been my friend because it masks the traffic noise.

Heavy traffic on an interstate near Pittsburgh

Heavy traffic on an interstate near Pittsburgh (Photo by Doug Kerr on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

During the winter, without the leaves on the trees to absorb some of the clamor, the interstate traffic is louder than ever. Researchers have found that at least six-tenths of a mile on each side of a road is affected by traffic noise, and a portion of our property is much closer than that.

Many humans are badly affected by continual anthropogenic noise, especially that made by roads, airplanes, and extractive industries such as fracking and mining.

In the last couple decades some researchers worldwide have been studying the effects such noise also has on wildlife, particularly birds. They’ve found that sounds made by vehicles, oil and gas fields, and urban sprawl can change the way animals communicate, mate, and prey on one another.

A white-crowned sparrow in California

A white-crowned sparrow in California (Photo by Mike Baird in Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Back in the 1960s, ornithologist Luis Baptista recorded white-crowned sparrow songs in San Francisco and discovered that they sang in three distinct dialects in different areas of the city. David Luther, a George Mason University biologist, studied the same areas in San Francisco in 2008. The traffic noise was much louder in 2008 than it was when Baptista made his recordings. As a result, the white-crowns had raised the pitch and length of their songs to be heard above the urban din and sang in only one dialect.

Another study, of both chipping sparrows and white-crowned sparrows in 2017, also found that white-crowned sparrows as well as chipping sparrows changed their songs in a noisy environment. Two other studies revealed that song sparrows and red-winged blackbirds did the same.

Luther hypothesizes that, “With our loud noise we might be influencing the very evolution of these birds.”

An eastern bluebird on a birdhouse in North Carolina

An eastern bluebird on a birdhouse in North Carolina (Photo by Ken Thomas in Wikimedia, in the public domain)

Eastern North America has little or no areas that are not affected by roads, and Pennsylvania has more than its share of them. Even a bird species seemingly unperturbed by roads—the eastern bluebird—appears to have problems with anthropogenic noise, according to a study of breeding eastern bluebirds in Williamsburg, Virginia.

The scientists concluded that their “study does provide evidence that bluebird fitness is being compromised at stages between egg hatching and chick fledging,” producing smaller brood sizes and less productivity, and thus “the birds will be particularly sensitive to noise during this (approximately) two-week time period.”

Furthermore, they suggest that managers try to keep favored songbird breeding habitats free from human-caused noise pollution.

Other studies report such effects of noise on wildlife as hearing loss from noise levels 85 decibels or greater, masking so that wildlife can’t hear animal signals, predators, or other environmental cues, increased heart rates and stress levels, and even the abandonment of noisy territories.

Probably the most interesting study of road noise in the United States was conducted by Boise State University ecologist Jesse Barber and his graduate students in a roadless southern Idaho forest which had plentiful food for migrating birds. They created a “phantom” road by blasting national park road noise through speakers during fall migration. Thirty-one per cent of the songbird community avoided the area. Those that remained to feed couldn’t gain weight, probably because they were too busy looking for predators.

Barber also cited a study in 49 places worldwide where bird populations declined within six-tenths of a mile of traffic noise. Birds with low frequency songs, such as mourning doves, avoided roads altogether, since they couldn’t be heard above the hum of traffic.

Compressor stations, such as this one in Milford, PA, bombard surrounding forests with noise

Compressor stations, such as this one in Milford, PA, bombard surrounding forests with noise (Photo by cool revolution in Flickr, Creative Commons license)

But roads aren’t the only noise problem that birds face. Studies in natural gas extraction fields found that compressor noise running 24 hours a day changes both breeding areas for songbirds as well as species’ numbers. Those birds that remain despite the noise may have trouble hearing songs or evaluating possible mates, parents may not hear chick noises or have less chance to forage.

In a study Barber and students did of 31 northern saw-whet owls subjected to recordings of a natural-gas compressor station, he reported that every time he raised the sound level by a decibel, the owls’ hunting success declined by eight per cent. Apparently, this owl species can hear sounds as low as negative 20 decibels while hunting for rodents, and when the researchers raised the volume to 60 decibels, the owls couldn’t catch any prey at all. Since all owl species depend on their ears and their eyes to hunt at night, we can only wonder how many other owl species might be impacted by noise.

A three-year study in the woodlands of northern New Mexico surveyed sites next to natural gas wells with compressors, which they compared to sites next to natural gas wells without compressors. Although they found no difference in the number of birds’ nests in both areas, they did observe 21 species nesting at compressor sites and 32 species nesting at those without compressors. However, nests of 14 species were found only at sites without compressors, yet nests of just three species were located only at compressor sites.

In addition, a common species, the house finch, produced 14% of the nests near compressors whereas more uncommon bird species preferred the gas wells without compressors. A whopping 22 of 23 mourning dove nests were built in the vicinity of gas wells without compressors. Even those species that nested near the compressor sites placed their nests farther away from well pads with compressors than they did on those without.

A western scrub jay found in Santa Fe, New Mexico; as of 2016, known as a Woodhouse’s scrub jay

A western scrub jay found in Santa Fe, New Mexico; as of 2016, known as a Woodhouse’s scrub jay (Photo by Peter Wallack in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Another interesting finding was that predators, such as western scrub-jays, avoided the noisy sites and preyed more heavily on nests in the quiet sites. Possibly they preferred the quiet sites because they couldn’t communicate over the noise of compressors.

The researchers concluded that “species intolerant of noise may suffer from not only exclusion from noisy habitats that might be otherwise suitable but also higher rates of nest predation relative to species inhabiting noisy areas.”

They go on to hypothesize that perhaps anthropogenic noise “may help explain the high degree of success among urban-adapted species [such as house sparrows, European starlings, and American crows, for instance] and the homogenization of avian communities in and around human-altered habitats.”

Still another study compared the nesting success of ovenbirds at compressor sites with those without. Although this study was done in boreal Canada, ovenbirds commonly nest in the forests of Pennsylvania and have always and continue to nest in our Laurel Ridge forest, which, unlike Sapsucker Ridge, overlooks a quiet, farming valley. If they still nest on Sapsucker Ridge, I can’t hear them above interstate noise.

An ovenbird on the ground

An ovenbird on the ground (Photo by Trish Gussler on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The ovenbird researchers discovered that the birds paired at a rate of 92% in the quiet sites and 77% in the noisy sites, probably because the females could not hear the males’ low-frequency “tea-cher, tea-cher” song as readily in the compressor sites. They add that most bird species in forests have low-frequency songs because they “provide optimal long-distance song transmission range in complex forest structures.”

Because of the steepness of Sapsucker Ridge on the interstate side, I have not been able to record bird species and numbers there during the several bird surveys I do here every year, most notably the Christmas Bird Count in December and the International Migratory Bird Count in May. I know that my own hearing is age-impaired, and I can’t hear birdsongs in the distance as I used to.

Since everyone who engages in various bird surveys depends on hearing bird calls and songs to identify them, ecologists in North Carolina wondered if declines in some breeding birds were due to background noise that interfered with the bird counters’ hearing.

The ecologists targeted a few of those experts who participate in the annual North American Breeding Bird Survey, the primary source for population and range information for over 400 species since 1966, and other experienced birders and played singing bird songs against varying levels of anthropogenic noise. Even a small amount of noise led to a 40% decrease in their ability to identify birds.

I can only imagine how many birds I miss every year.


In August our weedy First Field is alive with singing American goldfinches. Although most songbirds are finishing their parental duties by then, American goldfinches have barely begun.

A male American goldfinch among thistles at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, PA

A male American goldfinch among thistles at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, PA (Photo by Jim, the Photographer, on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Their preference for thistle and other seeds may be one reason they wait until midsummer when the seeds are mature, because they line their nests with thistle, milkweed or burdock down and feed their nestlings a slurry of those regurgitated seeds, instead of insects, which are favored by spring-breeding birds.

Another reason may be the length and intensity of goldfinches unique prenuptial body molt in early spring. The dramatic change of the olive-buff males to vibrant gold bodies and black caps, which set off their black-and-white wings, never fails to dazzle me every April.

But knowing they do not breed until midsummer, I am also surprised that they sing as lustily as other species beginning in early spring. Some researchers believe that they form pair bonds in late winter flocks or as soon as both sexes arrive on their breeding grounds.

A female American goldfinch

A female American goldfinch (Photo by Eric Bégin on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

On the other hand, males need to try harder for mates because for every 1.6 males, there is only one female, so first-year males have a difficult time acquiring a mate. Thus, while goldfinches are mostly monogamous, at least 15% of females mate with a second mate especially if they have a second brood.

Back in the years 1979 until 1985, Alex L. Middleton, of the University of Guelph in Ontario, was watching nests of goldfinches he had color-banded on the university grounds. That was when he made, for the first time in ornithological history, the observation that the goldfinch father of the first brood was not always the father of the second one, proving that regular and recurring classical polyandry was occurring in a passerine species.

A male American goldfinch at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, PA

A male American goldfinch at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, PA (Photo by Jim, the Photographer, on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

During his study, he found five cases of polyandry and concluded that even though only a few females practiced it, they had more than seven fledglings a season compared with slightly over three for “faithful” females. In addition, the polyandrous females were older, experienced birds that preferred to breed with older males because of their experience and their physiological fitness which enabled them to start breeding a week ahead of younger males.

But a younger male sometimes attached itself to the breeding pair and when the first male was still busy feeding his first brood and his mate was already building a second nest, the surplus male bred with the female. Since then, researchers have been finding that many so-called monogamous songbirds are not as faithful as they were once portrayed with both males and females sneaking extra-pair copulations.

A crowd of American goldfinches on a Nyjer thistle feeder in Danville, PA

A crowd of American goldfinches on a Nyjer thistle feeder in Danville, PA (Photo by fishhawk on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Last April our feeders were crowded with males in the midst of molting and far fewer females. Whether they were migrant males and females or those that had been with us all winter was impossible to tell, because we had had on average 12 goldfinches at a time on our feeders throughout the colder months.

Here in Pennsylvania they migrate through the state from late March until late May, although their peak migration is from the fourth week in April to the second week in May. Many are coming from as far south as the Gulf states and Florida in the United States and central Mexico, but they do wander in large flocks wherever there is ample food, even in winter. They breed from southern Canada through most of the United States with the exception of the southwest and along the Gulf Coast.

American goldfinches rarely nest in Pennsylvania before July 5 and nests with eggs are found here through the end of August. However, the earliest confirmed breeding in the commonwealth, according to the Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania, was that of a bird carrying nesting material on May 2 and the latest was of parents feeding young on October 14.

The female selects the nest site, often in a wet corner of a brushy pasture such as our First Field, and constructs it in the fork of a sapling or shrub, anywhere from one to 33 feet above the ground. Three dogwood species and numerous hawthorn and willow species are special favorites.

She takes at least four days to build her tightly constructed nest with walls so thick that the nest can hold water. Sometimes this leads to disaster during heavy rainstorms when unattended nestlings drown.

A male American goldfinch feeding a female on May 4, 2007

A male American goldfinch feeding a female on May 4, 2007 (Photo by Doug Greenberg on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

One unusual nest was found hanging from a broken cornstalk in a cornfield near Hamburg, Pennsylvania on September 24, 2008. It was turned on its side on the stalk and was attached by spider silk and plant fibers. Lined with thistle down, it contained a single egg. Even though American goldfinches have been known to nest in as many as 87 plant species, this was the first nesting on a cornstalk confirmed with a photograph. But after watching for a couple days and seeing no goldfinches nearby, the researchers concluded that the nest had been abandoned several weeks before, especially since the nest looked a bit tattered.

Once their nest is finished, the pair leaves the area for several days, maybe to deter predators such as eastern garter snakes, blue jays, and short-tailed weasels. Then the female lays four to six very pale bluish-white eggs and she sits on the nest 95% of the time incubating the eggs while her mate supplies almost all of her food.

The male often sings and flies high above the nest site, checking up on whether his mate needs food. When he hears her soft teeteeteetee hunger call, he drops down near the nest. Then she furtively hops through the underbrush to him to receive her meal.

After 12 to 14 days, the eggs hatch and she broods the young while the male continues feeding her on the nest. She in turn feeds the chicks, but after four days she leaves the nest. Then both parents feed their nestlings by regurgitating a sticky, half solid mass of seeds, including those of sunflower, thistle, burdock, dandelion, chicory, aster and goldenrod, all of which thrive in overgrown pastures.

The nestlings are quiet during their first week in the nest, but by the second week they are active and noisy and fledge anywhere from 12 to 17 days of age. They are dependent on their parents for three more weeks while they learn what to eat and where to find it.

Once they are independent, the young birds join flocks of adults that increase in size during late summer and early autumn. It is then that goldfinches, once they finish breeding, engage in their second molt of the season that lasts as long as 75 days.

They also wander the countryside in search of food. Their choices have led to a variety of nicknames such as “catnip-bird,” “beet-bird,” “lettuce-bird,” and “thistle-bird,” that attest to their liking of both garden and wild plant seeds. “Wild-canary” and “shiner” are tributes to the male’s golden plumage. In addition, their genus name, Carduelis, is Latin for “thistle” and their species name, tristis, means sad, referring to their plaintive calls. Their song, which is unusually long, is both rambling and warbling.

An American goldfinch in Chester County, PA

An American goldfinch in Chester County, PA (Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

American goldfinch numbers are holding steady in the commonwealth, as they nested in 96% of the atlasing blocks with the highest numbers in suburban and rural developments, places that have both wild and garden foods as well as year around, amply stocked birdfeeders. In addition to weedy fields and suburban gardens, goldfinches also like river flood plains, early second growth forest, and orchards for nesting and food.

It is encouraging to learn that one of North America’s most attractive and appealing birds—“panoplied in jet and gold” as ornithologist Edward Howe Forbush once wrote, has benefited rather than suffered from humanity’s actions.

So, the next time your neighbors complain about the dandelions in your lawn or weeds in your garden, tell them you are growing food for American goldfinches.