American Goldfinch Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

Today I share what little I know of goldfinches. They are common, we find them throughout the year, but apart from their vocalizations, their plumages, and the fact that they like seeds, how much more can be said? Beautiful, interesting birds, though.

Goldfinch, American

American goldfinch, male in summer plumage.

American goldfinch, male in summer plumage.

Male goldfinches are bright yellow, black and white in summer. They molt into more subdued colors like those of females in winter, with yellow replaced by greenish. They spend most of the year in flocks. Their flight has a distinctive rollercoaster pattern, accompanied by “chip-chip-chip” and “ziiiiip” vocalizations. Males have a chittering musical song with occasional “zip” notes (slur up), sung from a tall tree or the top of a bush. They sing in early spring, long before nesting, then again in the mid to late summer nesting season. Usually they are seen in or around old fields. They nest in late summer, not beginning until other passerines are done nesting. The nest often is built in a bush in an old field, generally with weed seed down or spider webs used in nest construction. Goldfinches eat seeds.

3SE86. A flock preened at midday in thick tree foliage along Glen Crest Creek at Willowbrook Forest Preserve. They used a “chee-chur-chur” call for contact, giving it whenever changing perches (even flying short distances), and in long flights.

12AP87. First song of year noted, at Winfield Mounds Forest Preserve.

26AP87. Male goldfinch singing in birch in Warrenville yard, 2/3 up the tree. Head facing slightly down toward a female. Then it took off, chasing her with a third goldfinch, gender not noted, joining them.

Goldfinches are the masters of plant seeds, and they can find them in every season. Here a bird in winter plumage extracts seeds from paper birch cones.

Goldfinches are the masters of plant seeds, and they can find them in every season. Here a bird in winter plumage extracts seeds from paper birch cones.

30AU90. Goldfinches working the thistles (Cirsium discolor and bull thistle) of late. The bird perches on a flower head going to seed and pulls it apart, tossing detached down aside.

25JE99. Goldfinch spring singing has ended.

13JL99. Goldfinches singing again.

10JA01. At Willowbrook, a couple of goldfinches were feeding on silver maple buds in the top of the tree, pecking at them.

15AP06. Mayslake. First goldfinch song of the year.

Goldfinches spend much of their time in open places, especially fields rich in seed-bearing annuals and perennials.

Goldfinches spend much of their time in open places, especially fields rich in seed-bearing annuals and perennials.

16JL09. A female goldfinch seeking fibers from my garden plants, therefore nest building nearby.

5AP10. Mayslake. A goldfinch male sang as it closely pursued a rapidly flying female, with twists and turns, similar to the behavior of red-winged blackbirds.

6MY10. Goldfinches have variable songs that often for a moment sound like those of other birds. Examples include Nashville and other warblers, catbird, cardinal. Are they song mimics, with an even heavier accent than that of the catbird?

The literature illuminates some of these observations. The two main functions of song are divided in this species. Spring singing is for finding a mate, and late summer singing is territorial.

Cedar Waxwing Dossier

by Carl Strang

One delightful bird which can be seen in northeast Illinois throughout the year is the cedar waxwing. Today I share my dossier for the species, consisting entirely of my own observations. Though references are valuable it also is important, I think, to keep track of one’s own experiences with a species.

Cedar waxwings are smaller than robins but larger than sparrows, crested, soft brown and yellow in color with bright yellow follow-me bands on the tail tips.

Waxwing, Cedar

My principal childhood memory is of waxwings that nested around brushy thickets and willow clumps along the Tippecanoe River near Monterey, IN. Adults hunted insects in flycatcher fashion from bare twigs over the river. In DuPage County they are evident in wandering flocks through all parts of the year except the breeding season. They travel in flocks, staying one to many days in an area and feeding on berries in fall and winter. This also occurred in Cumberland County, PA. Mountain-ash berries were a favorite food in both places. Also consumed are dogwood, and buckthorn berries. Flock cohesion is aided by the bright-yellow tips of the tail feathers, and by the unique high-pitched thin contact call. First winter birds have breasts striped longitudinally with cream and the soft brown adults’ breast color. At the Willowbrook Wildlife Center clinic, waxwings frequently came in with broken wings and other injuries suffered in collisions with windows. In the cages they showed an open-mouthed threat display, possibly made more effective by the black facial markings. In mid-September at Herrick Lake, a single waxwing perched in an old-field treetop gave a single loud note and flew away into thicker trees. Several seconds later a sharp-shinned hawk flew by the waxwing’s original perch, heading in the same direction. (This first paragraph, written from memory, established the dossier in the early 1980’s. Subsequent additions begin with date codes.)

When not feeding, cedar waxwings typically perch high in trees.

30OC86. Willowbrook Back 40. Waxwings feeding heavily from honeysuckle (berries and leaves still on bushes).

16OC87. First autumn appearance of a flock at Willowbrook Back 40.

13JA88. Lots of waxwings in Back 40.

27OC88. Feeding on honeysuckle berries, Willowbrook Back 40.

13DE88. Waxwings abundant in Back 40, stuffing down rose hips.

3SE89. Mixed young and old waxwings eating honeysuckle berries, Island Park, Geneva.

JA99. Waxwing flocks frequently at Willowbrook. Eating, among other things, Asiatic bittersweet (Celastrus) berries.

11MR99. Last of winter waxwings noted. Not seen again at Willowbrook until 25MY. Then after 1JE another gap until 12&20JL. Became a frequent visitor again in early August.

These waxwings are drinking meltwater where snow is being warmed on a roof at Mayslake Forest Preserve. Much energy is saved by drinking, even if the water is cold, instead of eating snow.

7JA00. Waxwing eating buckthorn berries.

31JA00. Waxwing, again at Willowbrook, again eating buckthorn berries.

8FE00. Waxwings eating buckthorn berries at Willowbrook.

17FE00. Several waxwings on the ground eating snow (buckthorn berries available on bushes nearby).

19MY01. Many flocking waxwings spread out over a large area at the Arboretum, mainly in treetops in forest as well as more open areas.

12MR06. Cedar waxwings delicately picking anthers from silver maple flowers in the yard. [Note: studies have shown that waxwings use protein from pollen to render certain berries more digestible]

13JE06. Tri-County State Park. Cedar waxwing working on a nest in the topmost leaf cluster in a 25-30-foot box elder within 30 yards of Brewster Creek. Weaving, using long slender strands, at least some of which are stripped from grape vines. Spending considerable time with each strand. Mate perched in same cluster of trees. Bird completely concealed when weaving.

This is the tree where waxwings built a nest at (then) Tri-County State Park in 2006.

16JE06. The nest looks complete, a significant lump in the first branching of twigs about a foot from the tip.

22MY08. Fullersburg. An interesting display between 2 cedar waxwings, appears highly stereotyped. They were perched side by side well up in a tree in SW Butler Woods. They took turns quickly hopping away from the other bird a few inches, and returning, at which point the two birds touched or nearly touched beaks, which were angled up. Each of these cycles (or half-cycles, for each bird) took 1-2 seconds, and there were perhaps 20 reps that I observed (i.e. at least 10 per bird). At first they faced the same way, at some point one turned to face the other way and they continued. Eventually one moved to a different twig, but still was close. [Note: this is called the Side-hop display in the Stokes bird behavior guide, and is part of courtship].

6JL09 Mayslake. 14 cedar waxwings foraging like swallows out over May’s Lake. (This was repeated over several days.)

1JA10. Hidden Lake. Waxwings and robins feeding on buckthorn berries.

Woodland Gardens

by Carl Strang

In an earlier post  I outlined my general, less-than-purist approach to gardening. I emphasize native species, but add others to make connections to my neighbors’ landscapes and to keep some color going through the season. Any gardener knows that there is an element of inquiry in the art. For instance, I have not had success with Jacob’s ladder in the main woodland garden in my side yard, but it does fine in the front.

Yard 10MY2b Polemonium

This year I am experimenting with a variegated form of Solomon’s seal in the front and side yards.

Yard 10MY3b var sol seal

My small side yard is dominated by 3 silver maples. Beneath them I have an understory with witch hazels, smooth arrow-wood, Juneberry, and pagoda dogwood. A mix of native woodland plants has something blooming for a good part of the season. Earlier the wild geraniums flowered.

Yard 23MY 3b geranium

These are supplemented by some non-native amsonias in the background.

Yard 23MY 12b Amsonia

If you look closely you may see the small pawpaws that ultimately will overtop the amsonias. These are growing from seeds I brought back from a vacation trip to southern Ohio, though pawpaw is native to northeast Illinois, too. Mid-summer brings a gap in blooming woodland wildflowers.

Yard 3JL 9b green textures

Though personally I like the variation in textures and shades of green, I like to bring in some color with tuberous begonias and hostas along the edge.

Yard 3JL 8b begonia hosta

This year I also added an urn with some New Guinea impatiens and a tropical Alocasia ‘Sarian’.

Yard 3JL 10b side yard container

I’m interested in seeing if these will keep going if I bring the urn indoors for winter.

P.S. this is the 200th post of this blog.

First Garden Flowers

by Carl Strang


On April 3 I noticed that the first bloodroot flowers were blooming in my garden.




This particular bunch is the one growing closest to the south face of my house, and so its soil warms relatively quickly. Others will bloom later. These were the first flowers of the year in my yard from a native species. They were not, however, the first flowers.




That honor always goes to Siberian squills, whose bulbs I planted in several patches a number of years ago. The bloodroot flowers were in a tie with the first daffodils, planted in honor of two friends who passed away in the late 1990’s.




Clearly I am not a purist when it comes to native species. To be sure, my gardens are heavily biased toward native plants (did you spot the redbud stem behind the daffodils?). I will share the different plantings in future posts, but today I want to focus on one point of landscape design. This is not my own idea, but one I learned from the Morton Arboretum’s former lead landscape architect, Tony Tyznik. He emphasized that it’s important to take a wide view, and consider one’s yard in the context of the surrounding neighborhood. My neighborhood is dominated by small yards, each typically a lawn with a green ash tree, some foundation shrubs, and a few flowers which almost entirely are of popular, non-native varieties.


My own yard is bigger than average because it is on a corner, and it has more trees than the others, 3 silver maples in addition to the ash. The extra trees allow me to minimize my lawn through the expansion of flowerbeds beneath the trees’ canopies. However, a thin strip of lawn remains to flow with those on either side (another Tyznik principle is to regard the lawn as the frame, not as the picture; a picture without a frame would be as unaesthetic as the typical suburban emphasis on the frame). Also, especially around the edges, I have scattered non-native annuals and perennials that reflect the popular choices of my neighbors. Behind those eye-catchers, there is a much larger area nearly pure in native plants. Despite the relatively low quality of my narrow lawn, I get frequent compliments from the neighbors: the small compromise of a few non-native flowers produces harmony in more than just the visual.

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