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Wild Canary

By Heather Shirley I March 02, 2021

The American goldfinch is a small North American bird in the finch family.

Heather, come look, quick! You’re not going to believe this bird—it’s amazing, something from the tropics!” called a colleague as he burst into my office one fine spring day. I was intrigued. At the time, I was working in an office in Madison, N.J., and there is little better than spring or fall migration season in Jersey. Stranger things have happened than a tropical bird getting misdirected off course, thus winding up far from its normal range.

I followed my colleague to where a crowd had gathered, gazing out the window at a small bird perched nearby. The bird was glorious. The most vivid sulfur yellow plumage was dazzling in the sunlight. I noted its fine, cone-shaped bill that came to a sharp point and its bold black wings highlighted with white wing bars.

The bird cocked its jaunty black-capped head and regarded us with a small dark eye. After a moment, it flew away from us, rising up and down like it was riding a roller coaster, and whistling a soft, descending tune that sounded like it was faintly calling out, “po-ta-to-chip.” It truly was breathtaking!

Expectant faces turned towards me, waiting for me to identify the little bird. “Good spot, and a gorgeous bird,” I said. “But, really, none of you know that bird? It’s an American goldfinch…the state bird of New Jersey!”

Sometimes, the most spectacular things are right under our noses, and often we don’t realize or appreciate this. Goldfinches are a case in point. These birds are widespread across North America (they’re also the state bird of Iowa and Washington). They live in New Jersey year-round, although in winter they trade their brilliant yellow feathers for drab, olive-gray plumage. Their diet consists purely of seeds, so they’re frequently found in open, weedy fields where they can be seen perched on treetops, acrobatically balancing on a flower such as thistle that’s gone to seed or even hanging upside down to delicately pluck seeds from milkflowers. Frequent bird feeder visitors, they prefer nyjer or sunflower seeds, and they like to scratch for seed that’s fallen to the ground below the feeder. (Note: be sure to clean your bird feeders and rake the ground under feeders every couple of weeks to make sure you don’t inadvertently spread disease from mold or droppings. Check out more bird feeder tips at

Goldfinches are mid-summer nesters since they wait until weeds have gone to seed to ensure a plentiful food supply for the arduous task of feeding hungry young chicks. The female spends about six days constructing a nest that is about 3 inches in diameter. She makes sure the nest is secure by lashing it with spider silk into the crook of a sapling, then lines it with the “fluff,” called pappus, from sprouted seeds. Her nest is so well-constructed it’s waterproof—when it rains, the brooding female goldfinch has to sit with wings spread over the rims of the nest to ensure it doesn’t fill with water.

She lays between two and seven eggs, and just two weeks after hatching, her chicks will be able to fly. When they’re young they will resemble the drab winter adults, not acquiring their golden color until the following summer. Part of their coloration comes from the carotinoids in their granivore, or seed-eater, diet. That beautiful yellow color makes them known colloquially as wild canaries—although, to be clear, they’re finches, not canaries at all.

Sadly, although the goldfinch was named Jersey’s state bird way back in 1935, climate change may result in the birds changing their patterns. As seasonal temperatures rise, the birds may be forced to nest in more northern climes, therefore they would only pass through New Jersey in migration.

Wouldn’t it be a shame not to be able to count our state bird as a resident? You can help stave this off by planting native plants in your yard (check out the Native Plant Society of New Jersey’s website: or by getting involved in non-partisan climate advocacy (

On another note, I was rather dismayed that people don’t know their state bird. Maybe schools no longer teach things like what the state bird is…or maybe people just don’t care or remember? This saddens me.

To combat this missed opportunity, I’m suggesting a pandemic friendly field trip: how many New Jersey state symbols can you see in a day? First, learn what all the symbols are by visiting the state’s website ( Then, pack up the family and the car with essentials for a fun day trip (picnic, rain gear, sunscreen, bug spray, etc.,) and head out to explore this fine state. You’ll likely see the state bird at your neighbors' feeders, the state wildflower along the Lake Hopatcong Trail and the state fruit growing in some of the state parks, particularly along parts of the Appalachian Trail.

The state mammal can often be spotted along country lanes, the state insect will probably be buzzing in fields alongside the mammals, and the state fish might be swimming in a clear and bubbling stream nearby. When you get home, giddy after your adventure, crank up some YouTube videos and learn the lost art of the state dance! Have fun and stay Jersey Proud!


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