American Ornithology: Volume 1.

YELLOW BIRD, OR GOLDFINCH. (Fringilla tristis.)

Linn. Syst. i. p. 320.
Carduelis Americana, Briss. iii. p. 6, 3.
Le Chardonnerat jaune, Buff. iv. p. 112. Pl. cnl. 202, fo. 2.
American Goldfinch, Arct. Zool. ii. No. 242.
Edw. 274.
Lath. Syn. iii. p. 288, 57. Id. Sup. p. 166.
Bartram, p. 290.
Pcale's Museum, No. 6344.

New York Siskin, Penn. Arct. Zool. p. 372. (Male changing his plumage, and the male in his winter dress taken for female, auct. Swains.)
Fringilla tristis, Bonap. Syn. p. 111, No. 181.
Carduelis Americana, North. Zool. ii. p. 268.

This bird is four inches and a half in length, and eight inches in extent, of a rich lemon yellow, fading into white towards the rump and vent. The wings and tail are black, the former tipt and edged with white, the interior webs of the latter are also white; the fore part of the head is black, the bill and legs of a reddish cinnamon colour. This is the summer dress of the male; but in the month of September the yellow gradually changes to a brown olive, and the male and female are then nearly alike. They build a very neat and delicately formed little nest, which they fasten to the twigs of an apple tree, or to the strong branching stalks of hemp, covering it on the outside with pieces of lichen, which they find on the trees and fences; these they glue together with their saliva, and afterwards line the inside with the softest downy substances they can produre. The female lays five eggs, of a dull white, thickly marked at the greater end; and they generally raise two broods in a season. The males do not arrive at their perfect plumage until the succeeding spring; wanting, during that time, the black on the head, and the white on the wings being of a cream colour. In the month of April they begin to change their winter dress, and, before the middle of May, appear in brilliant yellow; the whole plumage towards its roots is of a dusky bluish black.

The song of the yellow bird resembles that of the goldfinch of Britain; but is in general so weak as to appear to proceed from a considerable distance, when perhaps the bird is perched on the tree over your head. I have, however, heard some sing in cages with great energy and animation. On their first arrival, in Pennsylvania, in February, and until early in April, they associate in flocks, frequently assembling in great numbers on the same tree to bask and dress themselves in the morning sun, singing in concert for half an hour together; the confused mingling of their notes forming a kind of harmony not at all unpleasant.[9]

About the last of November, and sometimes sooner, they generally leave Pennsylvania, and proceed to the south; some, however, are seen even in the midst of the severest winters. Their flight is not direct, but in alternate risings and sinkings; twittering as they fly, at each successive impulse of the wings.[10] During the latter part of summer they are almost constant visitants in our gardens in search of seeds, which they dislodge from the husk with great address, while hanging frequently head downwards, in the manner of the titmouse. From these circumstances, as well as from their colour, they are very generally known, and pass by various names expressive of their food, colour, &c., such as thistle bird, lettuce bird, salad bird, yellow bird, &c. The gardeners, who supply the city of Philadelphia with vegetables, often take them in trap-cages, and expose them for sale in market. They are easily familiarised to confinement, and feed with seeming indifference a few hours after being taken.

[9] Carduelis of Brisson, having types in the common goldfinch and siskin of this country, is now generally used as the generic appellation for the group to which our present species belongs. It contains several American and European species. They are closely allied to the true linnets; and the lesser redpoll (the Fringilla linaria auctorum), has even by some been ranked. with them. They also much resemble the latter group in their manners, their haunts, their breeding, and feeding. Every one who has lived much in the country, must have often re-marked the common European gray linnets, in the manner above described of the American goldfinch, congregating towards the close of a fine winter's evening, perched on the summit of some bare tree, pluming themselves in the last rays of the sun, chirruping the commencement of their evening song, and then bursting simultaneously into one general chorus; again resuming their single strains, and again joining, as if happy, and rejoicing at the termination of their day's employment. Mr Audubon has remarked the same trait in their manners, and confirms the resemblance of their notes: “So much does the song of our goldfinch resemble that of the European species, that, whilst in France and England, I have frequently thought, and with pleasure thought, that they were the notes of our own bird which I heard.”—Ed. [return]

[10] The flight of the American goldfinch, and its manners during it, are described by Mr Audubon with greater minuteness: it is exactly similar to the European bird of the same name, being performed in deep curved lines, alternately rising and falling, after each propelling motion of the wings. It scarcely ever describes one of those curves, without uttering two or three notes whilst ascending, such as its European relative uses on similar occasions. In this maimer its flight is prolonged to considerable distances, and it frequently moves in a circling direction before alighting. Their migration is performed during the day. They seldom alight on the ground, unless to procure water, in which they wash with great liveliness and pleasure; after which they pick up some particles of gravel and sand. So fond of each other’s company are they, that a party of them soaring on the wing will alter their course at the calling of a single one perched on a tree. This call is uttered with much emphasis: the bird prolongs its usual note, without much alteration; and as the party approaches, erects its body, and. moves to the right and left, as if turning on a pivot, apparently pleased at showing the beauty of its plumage and. elegance of its manners.

This natural group has been long celebrated for their docility and easy instruction, whether in music or to perform a variety of tricks They are, consequently, favourites with bird fanciers, and often doomed to undergo a severe and cruel discipline. The goldfinch, canary, the various linnets, the siskin, and chaffinch, are principally used for this purpose; and it is often astonishing, and almost incredible, with what correctness they will obey the voice or motions of their masters. Mr Syme, in his “History of British Song Birds”, when speaking of the Sieur Roman, who some years since exhibited goldfinches, linnets, and canaries, wonderfully trained, relates, that “one appeared dead, and was held up by the tail or claw without exhibiting any signs of life; a, second stood on its head with its claws in the air: a third. imitated a Dutch milkmaid going to market with pails on its shoulders; a fourth mimicked a Venetian girl looking out at a window; a fifth appeared as a soldier, and mounted guard as a sentinel; and the sixth acted as a cannonier, with a cap on its head, a firelock on its shoulder, and a match in its claw, and discharged a small cannon. The same bird also acted as if it had been wounded. It was wheeled in a barrow, to convey it, as it were, to the hospital; after which it flew away before the company: a seventh turned a kind of windmill; and the last bird stood in the midst of some fireworks, which were discharged all round it, and this without exhibiting the least symptom of fear.” The American goldfinch is no less docile than its congeners. Mr Audubon relates, that they are often caught in trap-cages; and that he knew one, which had undergone severe training, draw water for its drink from a glass, by means of a little chain fastened to a soft leathern belt round its body, and another, equally light, fastened to a little bucket, which was kept by its weight in the water: it was also obliged to supply itself with food, by being obliged to draw towards its bill a little chariot filled. with seeds.

Female is represented on Plate VI. of Vol. III., in Bonaparte’s continuation..—Ed. [return]