Q: I read somewhere that goldfinches are late nesters. Is there a reason why? And do you suppose that the ones I see at my feeders in winter are the same as the ones here now?
— Nana, Pittsfield
A: I have no thoughts about goldfinches of winter being the same as summer individuals. The chances are those of the winter bird feeders are not the same as the summer birds. As for why they are late in the summer it is because of the materials they prefer for nesting.
These acrobatic colorful finches, unlike many other songbirds, have yet to nest yet. For instance, our bluebird couple is on their second brood with the female sitting on four eggs as I write. The goldfinch is, during the summer, a field or meadow species, especially searching out weedy fields and floodplains where plenty of seeds are prevalent at this time of the year. Especially, they are looking for thistles where they wait for the plants to produce fluffy thistledown for building material to line their nests. When thistle is not available, they may use milkweed. This thistledown, and abundance of seeds at this season, is the primary reason for holding off nesting to late July and early August. As with many other species, the female builds the nest — just to suit her preferences — of plant fibers, spiderwebs and the mentioned thistledown. I read somewhere that the nest is so well made that it can hold water.
The American goldfinch, with its cheery “perchickory” call, bound up and down as it flies with undulating flight. Thankfully, it is a very common resident with its cheerful call. Once, around 1900, it was considered a rare winter bird. Now, it is a common winter species attracted by wild bird feeders.
Q: This is the first time that we have had cowbirds hanging around our yard. I don’t like the idea of their laying eggs in other birds’ nests. Doesn’t sound fair.
— A reader from Adams
A: “Brood Parasites.” This is the first time we have had them in our yard, too, but not to make a nest. I wonder if there is an increase or just a coincidence. These parasites do not bother to make their own nest, but lay their eggs for others to raise!
According to allaboutbirds.org, “Brown-headed cowbird is a stocky blackbird with a fascinating approach to raising its young. Females forgo building nests and instead put all their energy into producing eggs, sometimes more than three dozen a summer.” Females are plain brown with a lighter head and underparts. Easier to lay an egg here and there if less inconspicuous I suppose.
Originally they followed the grand herds as bison and spread east in the 1800s as forests were cleared. Their parasitism threatens some species of few numbers like the endangered Kirtland’s warbler and black-capped vireo, two very rare species I would love to add to my life list.
Q: Will you mention something about monarch butterflies sometime soon. They seem to be more uncommon this summer than last.
A: Next week!
Judith E. wrote: “Saw my first monarch butterfly while walking my dogs on Blackstone Road in Florida yesterday. Happily, several bumblebees as well.”
Mark, from Lee, wrote: “I have not yet seen a monarch butterfly in our flower garden, but will keep watching out for them. Last year we had several that laid eggs and larvae made it through.”
Sam F., in Sheffield, wrote: “I have seen the doodlebugs at Bartholomew’s Cobble a few years ago, probably just where you saw them. They are fun, and if you use thin grass to play them one will poke its jaws out quickly. It takes time.”
Marie N., of Stockbridge, wrote: “I saw a mourning cloak butterfly a few days ago. And was surprised as I always see one or two in early spring. So I looked them up on the internet to learn that they live for nearly a year and may be seen any time of the season including summer and winter in warm weather.”