August is the month for the American Goldfinch. They are the last songbirds to nest during the warm seasons, and they only have one brood. It coincides with the abundance of seeds, namely from thistles, asters, and sunflowers. The male’s plumage is at its yellowiest, a cheery sunshine, which appears brighter against black and white-lined wings, black cap, and little orange beak. The females may look drab even when not beside the males, though the olive is their olive, a beauty of its own.
The goldfinches frequently fly around all day. Above trees, back and forth across the deep blue sky, never landing, continuously traveling. Whenever I am outside and hear the per-chick-o-ree (or, “potato chip”), I look up to trace their irregularly undulating path. Once they go beyond my hearing range, I stare after them. I wonder where they go and what the purpose of their flight is.
When the goldfinches begin their nesting, they vanish until September, when their young fledge.
But just before, they become astonishingly aggressive.
I say astonishing because I’d never think these pleasant songbirds could behave this way. They are so sweet, so dazzling, with a vocal timbre so delightful and delicate. I did have some idea of their belligerence when I fed them for the first time, during the previous winter. I hung a finch feeder filled with nyjer seeds – basically, candy from El Dorado. Although the feeder had room for six birds at a time, the goldfinches allowed only up to four of themselves to feed peacefully. Once a fifth arrived and tried to knock one away, the two would nyoom around the backyard as if they were ballroom dancing. This happened more often as spring approached.
As the time to breed draws nearer, male goldfinch aggression heightens. Flocks break up. Territories must truly be established. Sometimes, one would be perched on a plant in the backyard garden, eating seeds, or drinking from the plant tray on the deck. Suddenly, another comes to pick a fight. They erupt in flight battles that look more extreme than their winter ballroom dance. First they have a face-off, fluttering closely to each other. They slowly rise into the air, wildly chirping as if to say, “You wanna a piece of this? Huh, huh?!” Then they’d either chase each other, or soon give up and return to their own businesses.
As intense as songbird fights are – they’re the equivalent of a soccer game brawl – it’s difficult to watch them with a serious face. Goldfinch fights? Comedy. During one of the Audubon group walk at Muscoot Farm, we stopped at the field to watch the goldfinches eat thistle seeds, admiring their plumage in the meanwhile. Suddenly, one goldfinch came too close to another and they went at it. The usual fighting. The few new-ish birders expressed that the scene was charming. To me, that was just as funny.
The gradual crescendo of aggression leads to stillness. As suddenly as goldfinches fill the sky, they fly about no more. When half of August passes, they, for the time being, choose their silence.