The American Goldfinch Wake Audubon’s 2023 Bird of the Year! by Phil Doerr
It’s time to bid this year’s star adieu and turn our attention to a new rising star coming in January when a new bird ascends! But for now, our American Goldfinch will be with us all winter. They will of course be a bit less obvious, as the fall molt to much duller colors is happening before our very eyes, so watch carefully! And don’t forget to keep track of these wonderful birds when they visit bird feeders in your neighborhood, or look for them along roadside ditches, and old fields. They’ll still be there, dangling upside down from sweet gum balls, or dried goldenrod flowerheads .
During the year we explored some fascinating features of the biology of this stunning and remarkable bird. We saw that Goldfinches are able to thwart would be brood parasitism by brown-headed cowbirds simply because they are vegetarian, and cowbird chicks starve without animal protein and fat. We also saw that some clever females hedge their genetic bets by choosing to raise a second brood after the first has fledged into the care of her mate. The second brood is with a different male, so if successful, the female produces a large number of offspring, with a diversity of genetic traits, increasing their survival probabilities and spreading her genotype more broadly. And at the end of the day, that’s what evolution is all about! Whoever leaves more offspring, more widely distributed wins!
We also saw that our local goldfinches are largely non-migratory, but that in winter our region often hosts short distance goldfinch migrants from colder climate areas to our north where goldfinches nest. Consequently, our local goldfinch populations do swell in winter, and they become quite common. And while goldfinches are indeed common throughout the southeast, the forecast for habitat changes with the current rate of warming associated with climate change, the future for goldfinches in North Carolina is tenuous. North Carolina east of the mountains will become too hot and dry for goldfinches to nest successfully. Goldfinches will shift breeding ranges northward unless we cease pumping fossil fuel residues into the atmosphere, and we will no longer be witness to the stunning gold of the breeding males!
What can we do for American goldfinches, to ensure our grandchildren will see breeding plumage birds? We can advocate for government policies to eliminate fossil fuel burning and promote the conversion of our entire economy to renewable energy. Failure is not an acceptable option, because it’s not just American Goldfinches we’ll lose, its life, and business as we know it. Let’s get to it!
To demonstrate that we can successfully address big environmental challenges, I want to call attention to an anniversary!
2023 is the 50th Anniversary of the Endangered Species Act! This monumental bipartisan act of Congress was signed into law by president Richard Nixon, and over the years has been the linchpin contributing to the recovery and delisting of the Bald Eagle, the Peregrine Falcon, the Brown Pelican, the American Alligator, and the Channel Island Fox. In addition, many other species are on the path to recovery with growing numbers because of the protection and positive conservation actions under the ESA. These include Green Sea Turtles, Humpback whales (some populations delisted), Whooping Cranes, Piping Plover, and California Condors among others. Its an anniversary worth celebrating!
And another success!
We also addressed the threat of the ozone hole in our upper atmosphere! When in the 1980s coolants escaping from refrigeration units and chlorine based propellants from spray cans were discovered depleting the ozone layer humans were at increasing risk from UVB ray induced skin cancers. The ozone layer absorbs UVB and reduces it’s incidence at the earth’s surface, reducing the cancer risk. An international treaty banning these substances facilitated by the United Nations (1989) has resulted in steady recovery of the ozone layer which is on track to full restoration by 2045.
The point is we (the world!) can accomplish big things. Yes, we can! Yes we must!
Have a great holiday season, and new year, and thanks for all the hard work you do for the for the planet!
Phil Doerr, Retiring Wake Audubon Board Member