When you see a bird in your backyard, how do you know it’s a bird? Feathers, of course! Feathers are what keep a bird warm, feathers are what enable a bird to fly, feathers are how we tell one bird from another, and feathers are what make a bird—a bird. Seeing feathers, especially brightly colored feathers, on the birds in our own backyards is also what makes bird watching and bird feeding so enjoyable.
When you think of birds in North-eastern Ohio with brightly colored feathers, you are probably thinking of finches and their close relatives like buntings and siskins, or their more distant relatives like cardinals and grosbeaks. Also, when you think of finches, it’s the American Goldfinch that probably is foremost among the group. Goldfinches take their name from the brilliant summer plumage of the males of the species. In order to keep their feathers in peak performing condition, all birds periodically lose and regrow their feathers in a process known as molting. Unique among the finch family, goldfinches molt twice yearly. During the fall molt, all of their feathers are replaced providing fresh thermal protection for the upcoming winter months. A second, partial, molt occurs each spring with neck, breast, and back feathers being replaced, while wing and tail feathers remain. This second molting, which is underway at this time of year, is what enables male goldfinches to change back and forth between their inconspicuous winter olive color and their bright, lemon-yellow, summer breeding plumage necessary to attract a mate.
Like goldfinches, male House Finches present more brightly colored plumage during the mating season than during the winter months. Remarkably, this color change is accomplished with only a single molt each year. Each fall the male House Finch grows new feathers that are gray-brown with broad streaks over most of its body, similar to the female and also similar in color to many sparrow species. However, on the head and upper breast the male House Finch grows bright red downy feathers that are tipped with gray. Over the course of winter, these gray tips will abrade, so that the red underdown is gradually exposed, becoming quite conspicuous by spring. Just what he needs to attract a mate!
Male Goldfinches have yellow, male House Finches have red, but the males of another finch family member, the Indigo Bunting are known for their deep blue color. Scientists that have studied Indigo Buntings have determined that, in spite of their deep blue appearance, there is no blue pigment in their feathers! Instead, their blue coloration is entirely the result of special structures in their feathers that refract sunlight, like a prism. Goldfinches and House Finches are readily attracted to backyard feeders on a year around basis—thistle tubes and sunflower feeders are favorites for both. By contrast, Indigo Buntings are migratory, using the stars at night to guide them to extreme Southern Florida or south of the border into Mexico and Central America during the winter and back to Ohio for spring nesting. Generally, much more reclusive than their finch brethren, buntings prefer to feed naturally on insects, weed seeds, and berries, but can also be attracted to thistle tubes and sunflower feeders in our area. The best opportunity to observe these colorful favorites is now— early to mid-spring —after their return but before the maturation of these wild food supplies. Be especially alert for their possible arrival at your backyard feeder during icy spring weather conditions.