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American Goldfinch Plumage Anomaly

Molting, the replacement of all or some of a bird’s feathers, occurs in response to a mixture of hormonal changes brought about by seasonal changes. This process serves to replace worn feathers (they cannot repair themselves) and can play a part in seasonal camouflage as well as attracting a mate.

All of our small songbirds have a complete molt, replacing all of their feathers in late summer. In addition, many species have a partial molt (replacing body feathers but not wing or tail feathers) in the spring.

According to David Sibley, American Goldfinches begin to molt all of their (alternate/breeding plumage) feathers in September, with the males replacing their brilliant gold feathers with much duller feathers by November.  Come spring and the breeding season, male goldfinches replace their dull (basic/non-breeding) body feathers (but not the wing or tail feathers) with new, bright feathers.

Imagine my surprise when I spied a brilliantly colored American Goldfinch at my feeder this week.  According to ornithologist George Clark, it’s usually March before one starts to see an American Goldfinch in breeding plumage. One can only wonder what prevented this individual from molting its breeding plumage in the fall. (Photo: male American Goldfinch, winter plumage; inset – male American Goldfinch in breeding plumage in January)

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20 responses

  1. WALTER HARRIS

    Maybe the unusually warm weather made him think it’s spring.

    January 15, 2020 at 6:51 am

  2. Anne Price

    Last winter here in Maine I had a male goldfinch in full color coming to the feeding area all winter long. I wondered how it happened and whether it was a problem for him–he seemed healthy.

    January 15, 2020 at 6:51 am

  3. Andrea LeBlanc

    Or could it have already gone through its Spring/March molt early due to the warm weather?

    January 15, 2020 at 8:19 am

    • I don’t believe the warm weather affects molt, Andrea — more to do with photoperiod, but this winter has everyone guessing!

      January 15, 2020 at 8:09 pm

  4. Alice

    Or he’s ‘an early bird’ and molted already & will maybe be the 1st to attract a mate. Sitting on the deck from 1 till 2pm, this past warm Sunday, I repeatedly heard what I think were Spring Peepers.

    January 15, 2020 at 8:27 am

  5. Anne Serrell

    Question-could our very warm weather recently in New England have triggered an early response like Spring?-see your description below.
    Imagine my surprise when I spied a brilliantly colored American Goldfinch at my feeder this week. According to ornithologist George Clark, it’s usually March before one starts to see an American Goldfinch in breeding plumage. One can only wonder what prevented this individual from molting its breeding plumage in the fall. (Photo: male American Goldfinch, winter plumage; inset – male American Goldfinch in breeding plumage in January)

    January 15, 2020 at 8:56 am

    • Hi Anne,
      I think it has more to do with day length than the actual temperature — but given this winter, it’s a plausible theory!

      January 15, 2020 at 8:08 pm

  6. Barry Avery

    I had a Male at my Feeder recently that was in full blown color. North Granby CT

    January 15, 2020 at 9:34 am

  7. Tracey

    Maybe he blew up from the South on a big rainstorm? Can’t blame him for thinking it was Spring already a few times this winter!

    January 15, 2020 at 11:04 am

  8. slawhi

    Or are they breeding earlier….  Yipes!

    January 15, 2020 at 12:09 pm

  9. david putnam

    I think he’s visiting from Chile.

    January 15, 2020 at 2:18 pm

  10. Stephanie Moffett-Hynds

    Is this the canary — or rather, goldfinch — in the coal mine?

    January 15, 2020 at 2:21 pm

  11. Charline Kellerman

    Could a late hatching cause the goldfinch to keep him to have the bright feathers?

    January 15, 2020 at 2:33 pm

    • I don’t believe so, Charline, as day length, etc. are usually the determining factors…very puzzling!

      January 15, 2020 at 8:06 pm

  12. Curious indeed!

    January 15, 2020 at 3:33 pm

  13. Dan

    Or maybe the unusual warmth we’ve experienced this winter has fooled him into breeding plumage a bit early? Hope not.

    January 15, 2020 at 3:44 pm

  14. Bolton, Melissa

    Hi Mary! I have been a follower for quite a few years and love your posts. I came across something today that I would have never expected and would like share with you. We were in a field that gets hayed in August and this year the bales were left behind wrapped in white plastic. Take a look for yourself! [Image.jpeg] [Image.jpeg] [Image.jpeg][Image.jpeg] Do you think they were playing around? There are clear snout marks that dug in and were sniffing around. Some bales faired better than others for sure. These pictures were from today in Concord, NH. (Bear?)

    Thank you! Melissa Bolton ________________________________

    January 15, 2020 at 6:24 pm

    • Hi Melissa, Unfortunately, WordPress doesn’t allow anyone’s photos to come through. Could you possibly email them to me at mholland@vermontel.net? Sounds fascinating!!!

      January 15, 2020 at 8:05 pm

  15. Dawn Boyer

    I have several males in breeding colors too (started just over a week ago)… I’ve also seen blue jays moving twigs around on a nest.

    On Wed, Jan 15, 2020, 06:42 Naturally Curious with Mary Holland wrote:

    > Mary Holland posted: ” Molting, the replacement of all or some of a bird’s > feathers, occurs in response to a mixture of hormonal changes brought about > by seasonal changes. This process serves to replace worn feathers (they > cannot repair themselves) and can play a part in seaso” >

    January 17, 2020 at 11:39 am

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