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A finch of a different color

It doesnt seem all that long ago. Lazy summer days spent either playing pickup baseball, basketball or riding bicycles around town looking for something to do. The bicycle seemed the only form of transportation readily available to us then. It gave us freedom and a wider view of our little world. And perhaps a more intimate one too. A bike ride will do that.

One destination on our two-wheeled itinerary was fairly reliable: the Sheyenne River. We would lug fishing rods plus whatever bait we could scrounge and head for Dons Bar (it no longer exists) on Center Street. Behind this establishment along the river lurked a scene straight out of Tom Sawyer. Or at least thats the way it seemed to us. There existed a seductive mosaic of woods, water, critters, makeshift trails, and just enough mystery to satisfy the curiosity and wanderlust of any youngster from town.

Out of the many memories made in those glorious days of youth, came the discovery of the animal worldfishes of all kinds, insects galore, turtles, clams, woodchucks, raccoons, and of course, birds. Much has been forgotten after nearly 40 years but one particular bird remains in the memory. At the time we called it a canary, but what did we know? I understand it now as the American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis).

In the summer months, this small finch is hard to miss. So dazzling is this species that no less than three states claim it as their state bird. The males are a bright lemon-yellow with a black forehead, black wings and bold white wingbars. The females are a more muted olive color. Fall brings a complete molt of feathers making the birds body appear a dull gray to tan throughout the winter. The change of appearance is so striking many people think they are seeing a different bird. Not so. Come spring the bird will molt body feathers againthe only member of the large finch family to do soand assume the gaudy gold color that gives it its name.

Another way to identify this bird, even at a distance, is by watching its flight. Deep and undulating, it will immediately remind an observer of a roller coaster. Plus the bird gives a distinctive flight call (only on the uphill part of the roller coaster), most often described as per-chic-o-ree.

The birds territory covers most of North America and it is a year-round resident in nearly all its range. Yes, you will find them here in the winter although in lesser numbers. They are often seen in mixed flocks; most notably with redpolls or pine siskins.

This species is one of the latest nesting birds, waiting until late June or early July before beginning to breed. The reason for this, it is thought, is to ensure a supply of seeds will be available to build a nest and feed the young. Goldfinches select a low fork in a tree or shrub (often near water) and weave a small, tight nest lined with plant down. The construction of their homes can be so secure as to hold water. After laying eggs, the female will incubate them a remarkable 95 percent of her day. She is dependent upon the male to feed her during this period.

American Goldfinches are almost exclusively seedeaters and are particularly fond of thistle. For this reason they are popular backyard visitors to feeding stations that provide it. It can be quite enjoyable to watch flocks of these birds hanging upside down while jostling for position at feeders. The same behavior can be observed in the wild if a person stakes out a large patch of weedy sunflowers or thistles.

In this age of Internet and X-box, cell phones and I-Pods, Id like to think there are still kids out there kicking though the woods and learning by getting dirty. Without that experience as a boy, I may never have discovered American Goldfinches or any of the multitudes of wonders I happened across. Id hate to think how dull life would be without those wonders.