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ALWAYS IN SEASON: Three yellow birds compete for ‘bird of the summer'

As promised, the American goldfinch is this week's candidate for ?bird of summer.? But the goldfinch will have to share column space with a flock of last-minute entries. Last-minute because summer is almost over, as the goldfinch testifies. For t...

As promised, the American goldfinch is this week's candidate for "bird of summer."

But the goldfinch will have to share column space with a flock of last-minute entries.

Last-minute because summer is almost over, as the goldfinch testifies.

For the past several weeks, pairs of goldfinches have been hanging around the backyard at my place west of Gilby, N.D. In the past few days, however, I've seen only males.

The females have gone nesting. American goldfinches are the last of our songbirds to build their nests. They wait to take advantage of the thistle crop.

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Thistle is a major building material for goldfinches, which line the insides of their nests with the soft heads of thistle.

Thistle seed is a major source of sustenance for goldfinch nestlings.

In our part of the world, thistle is a late-summer crop, so that is when the goldfinches nest.

It's easy enough to overlook female goldfinches even when they aren't engaged in the secretive business of nesting. They are plain birds with only a hint of gold. The best field marks, in fact, are bars on their wings.

The male goldfinch, by contrast, is a pretty bird. Overall, he is bright yellow. The wings are black (but with a white bar) and there's a spot of black on top of the head.

This combination is unique among our birds, and makes it unlikely that the goldfinch would be confused with any other bird - except the yellow warbler, another candidate for "bird of summer."

Like the goldfinch, the yellow warbler is a tiny bird, smaller than the familiar house sparrow. But while the goldfinch is a stocky bird, the warbler is slim and sleek.

The yellow warbler has no black markings. Indeed, it is almost entirely yellow, except for some red streaking on the breast, and that fades as summer advances.

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Yellow warblers and goldfinches are both common birds, but goldfinches are more often seen. They commonly perch in the open. They frequently come to bird feeders, where they can be quite approachable. And their undulating flight and sweet song is distinctive. On the other hand, yellow warblers, in common with other warblers, are fairly secretive birds, and their song is rather weak.

The goldfinch and the warbler share a widely used name, however, "wild canary." Neither is a member of the canary family, but the name may be marginally more appropriate for goldfinches, which are seed-eaters, like canaries.

Still a third yellow bird emerged as a candidate for "bird of summer." This is the yellowthroat, which must have been nominated on the basis of its distinctive song. Probably every Northern Plains person who's spent any summer evening in a farmyard or at the lakeshore has heard the yellowthroat's "wickety wickety wickety" call. Many fewer have seen yellowthroats, however, and probably few are inclined to pursue them because yellowthroats favor heavy vegetation on wet or boggy sites - precisely the habitat also favored by mosquitoes.

Nevertheless, the yellowthroat is a bird worth looking for. Its plumage is a striking combination of olive green on the back and a brilliant yellow throat edged by black, which extends across the eyes in a kind of mask. In turn, the black is edged by white. This gives the yellowthroat the look of a bandit.

Most yellowthroat sightings are serendipitous. They often pop out of roadside vegetation, especially near wet ditches and small wetlands.

These three "yellow birds" are fit candidates for the label "bird of summer." Each is evocative of the season in the Red River Valley.

These entries do not exhaust the list, however. Next week we'll consider several other candidates for "bird of summer," including a couple of familiar species and a couple that are less well known.

Give me a call or shoot me an e-mail if you want to suggest a candidate for "bird of summer." The phone number is (701) 780-1103 from the city or (800) 477-6572, ext. 103 from out of town. The email address is mjacobs@gfherald.com .

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Jacobs is publisher and editor of the Herald.

Related Topics: MIKE JACOBS
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