As summer turns to fall, many of our avian neighbors on Capitol Hill are losing their breeding plumage and settling into their winter look. If you watch carefully over the next few weeks, you might catch a male American goldfinch — our Washington state bird — in a scruffy, half-molted state.
During summer, male American goldfinches have bright yellow body feathers and a black cap. Now, and for the next six weeks or so, these birds are dropping their old feathers and growing a complete set of new ones. By the middle of November, they’ll have a sedate olive-colored body and crisp-looking black-and-white wings. Their bill color will also change from bright yellow to black.
American goldfinches will keep this drab look until early spring, when the males will regain their bright yellow body plumage. But the spring molt is only partial; goldfinches hang onto a single set of black-and-white wing feathers for the full year.
Nearly all birds undergo a complete molt sometime in late summer or early fall. It can be hard to catch them at it, especially if the changes in their plumage aren’t as striking as those of the goldfinch. But if you look closely, you may see some changes. For example, European starlings look little more speckled in their brand-new plumage at this time of year.
If you’d like to see an American goldfinch in its scruffy, half-molted state, Volunteer Park is a good place to look.
Interested in Learning More?
- Check out the page for the American goldfinch at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
- Listen to the song of the American goldfinch at the Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds.
- David Allen Sibley, author of the popular Sibley Guide to the Birds, posted a great animation of the yearly plumage changes of the male American goldfinch on his blog.
Previous Aviary Posts
- The Bard, the birds and the battle for Hill gardens
- Annoying Hill crows are actually smart little bird brains
- Swallows pursue unlicensed construction project beneath 520 bridge
- Hill welcomes avian arrivals from the tropics
Melissa Koosmann is a freelance writer and resident of Capitol Hill. She writes about education, culture, gardening and nature — and, sometimes, birds for CHS.