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The Goldfinch
by [?]

About the most noticeable bird of August in New York and New England is the yellowbird, or goldfinch. This is one of the last birds to nest, seldom hatching its eggs till late in July. It seems as if a particular kind of food were required to rear its brood, which cannot be had at an earlier date. The seed of the common thistle is apparently its mainstay. There is no prettier sight at this season than a troop of young goldfinches, led by their parents, going from thistle to thistle along the roadside and pulling the ripe heads to pieces for the seed. The plaintive call of the young is one of the characteristic August sounds. Their nests are frequently destroyed, or the eggs thrown from them, by the terrific July thunder-showers. Last season a pair had a nest on the slender branch of a maple in front of the door of the house where I was staying. The eggs were being deposited, and the happy pair had a loving conversation about them many times each day, when one afternoon a very violent storm arose which made the branches of the trees stream out like wildly disheveled hair, quite turning over those on the windward side, and emptying the pretty nest of its eggs. In such cases the birds build anew,–a delay that may bring the incubation into August.

It is a deep, snug, compact nest, with no loose ends hanging, placed in the fork of a small limb of an apple-tree, a peach-tree, or an ornamental shade-tree. The eggs are faint bluish-white.

While the female is sitting, the male feeds her regularly. She calls to him on his approach, or when she hears his voice passing by, in the most affectionate, feminine, childlike tones, the only case I know where the sitting bird makes any sound while in the act of incubation. When a rival male invades the tree, or approaches too near, the male whose nest it holds pursues and reasons or expostulates with him in the same bright, amicable, confiding tones. Indeed, most birds make use of their sweetest notes in war. The song of love is the song of battle too. The male yellowbirds flit about from point to point, apparently assuring each other of the highest sentiments of esteem and consideration, at the same time that one intimates to the other that he is carrying his joke a little too far. It has the effect of saying with mild and good-humored surprise, “Why, my dear sir, this is my territory; you surely do not mean to trespass; permit me to salute you, and to escort you over the line.” Yet the intruder does not always take the hint. Occasionally the couple have a brief sparring-match in the air, and mount up and up, beak to beak, to a considerable height, but rarely do they actually come to blows.

The yellowbird becomes active and conspicuous after the other birds have nearly all withdrawn from the stage and become silent, their broods reared and flown. August is his month, his festive season. It is his turn now. The thistles are ripening their seeds, and his nest is undisturbed by jay-bird or crow. He is the first bird I hear in the morning, circling and swinging through the air in that peculiar undulating flight, and calling out on the downward curve of each stroke, “Here we go, here we go!” Every hour in the day he indulges in his circling, billowy flight. It is a part of his musical performance. His course at such times is a deeply undulating line, like the long, gentle roll of the summer sea, the distance from crest to crest or from valley to valley being probably thirty feet; this distance is made with but one brief beating of the wings on the downward curve. As he quickly opens them, they give him a strong upward impulse, and he describes the long arc with them closely folded. Thus, falling and recovering, rising and sinking like dolphins in the sea, he courses through the summer air. In marked contrast to this feat is his manner of flying when he indulges in a brief outburst of song on the wing. Now he flies level, with broad expanded wings nearly as round and as concave as two shells, which beat the air slowly. The song is the chief matter now, and the wings are used only to keep him afloat while delivering it. In the other case, the flight is the main concern, and the voice merely punctuates it.

* * * * *

Among our familiar birds the matchmaking of none other is quite so pretty as that of the goldfinch. The goldfinches stay with us in loose flocks and clad in a dull-olive suit throughout the winter. In May the males begin to put on their bright summer plumage. This is the result of a kind of superficial moulting. Their feathers are not shed, but their dusky covering or overalls are cast off. When the process is only partly completed, the bird has a smutty, unpresentable appearance. But we seldom see them at such times. They seem to retire from society. When the change is complete, and the males have got their bright uniforms of yellow and black, the courting begins. All the goldfinches of a neighborhood collect together and hold a sort of musical festival. To the number of many dozens they may be seen in some large tree, all singing and calling in the most joyous and vivacious manner. The males sing, and the females chirp and call. Whether there is actual competition on a trial of musical abilities of the males before the females or not, I do not know. The best of feeling seems to pervade the company; there is no sign of quarreling or fighting; “all goes merry as a marriage bell,” and the matches seem actually to be made during these musical picnics. Before May is passed the birds are seen in couples, and in June housekeeping usually begins. This I call the ideal of love-making among birds, and is in striking contrast to the squabbles and jealousies of most of our songsters.

I have known the goldfinches to keep up this musical and love-making festival through three consecutive days of a cold northeast rainstorm. Bedraggled, but ardent and happy, the birds were not to be dispersed by wind or weather.