The American Goldfinch's
 Prenuptial Molt

Utah Birds Special Report

Molt of the American Goldfinch

Mostly during the month of April here in Utah, the American Goldfinch makes a dramatic change from winter plumage to breeding plumage.

 Winter Female

          Breeding Female

Winter Male          → 

Breeding Male

They are molting, to some extent, a great part of the year: They have to change to a more obscure plumage in the Winter to preserve their lives from predators, but in the Spring and Summer they make a dramatic color change to attract a mate and preserve the species -- they are taking a very big chance with potential predators for the good of the species!

  Both the male and the female make the change but because the female gets to choose who she mates with -- she can be very picky -- so the male goes all out to win her over, including a very impressive black top hat and outrageously yellow body feathers.

The sequence goes something like this:
Male American Goldfinch in December, by Paul Higgins   ©Paul Higgins

Notice the dark bill.
(Signs of the previous Spring molt are almost all gone by December).
Non-breeding Female in January, by Marlene Foard   ©Marlene Foard

They don't have the leaves to hide behind in the Winter, so their winter plumage is
more subdued and less obvious to their predators so they can survive to breed the next Summer.

Male Am. Goldfinch in December by Paul Higgins   ©Paul Higgins

The first changes start in the face and head and proceed tail-ward from there.
Male American Goldfinch in December, by Paul Higgins   ©Paul Higgins

The bill starts to change to a bright orange color.
Molting Male in April, by Kendall Brown    ©Kendall Brown
The bright yellow feathers "immerge" in patches from the
dull gray/brown body feathers of the winter plumage.

Partially molted Male April,   by John Crawley   ©John Crowley
The bill becomes completely orange and the cap gradually becomes black.

Varied plumages in April, by Steve Carr   ©Steve Carr

In the month of April American Goldfinches are in different stages of molt.
Female in June, by Paul Higgins    ©Paul Higgins
 The outcome for the Female is tasteful yellow and white body feathers
with a bright yellow-orange bill. 
(Saving some energy for egg-laying and nesting)

Male in May, by John Crowley    ©John Crowley
 The Male is certainly stunning with his bright yellow body feathers,
a black top hat stylishly tilted forward and eye-catching black and white wings.
(Holding nothing back for his big chance to attract a mate).


After a Summer of nesting, a complete molt begins whish includes not only the body feathers,
but a gradual wing and tail feather mold as well, which happens one feather at a time on each wing
and each side of the tail tail so the bird can still fly during this process.
Male in December, by Paul Higgins   ©Paul Higgins

By December the bill is almost dark again and the back is almost all brown/gray and the cap is almost gone.
He's ready to settle down for the winter in the leafless trees.
The variety of things that birds do to attract a mate is quite astounding:
 strutting male Sage Grouse on a lek, swimming-tiptoe duets by Clark's and Western Grebes,
Gray Catbirds learning over 400 different song phrases to serenade a mate,
the mating dances of Sandhill Cranes, the winnowing flight of a Wilson's Snipe, and --
one we can observing in our own backyards -- the Molt of the American Goldfinch.
Each is spectacular in its own way.

Male American Goldfinch in July, by Paul Higgins    ©Paul Higgins



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