I’m sick of hearing about the virus. How about a non-pandemic question? Around this time of year, the goldfinches suddenly turn bright yellow. How do they know when to change colors and what causes it to happen? Just curious. Sign me “Otto Bonn.”
Mrs. Action Line was wondering that, too.
“Look at all those LBJs,” she said, looking out the kitchen window at the feeder teeming with small songbirds.
When Mrs. Action Line refers to LBJs, she’s not talking about Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36th president of the United States.
Johnson’s wife was widely known by her nickname, “Lady Bird.”
But that’s not important right now.
LBJ stands for Little Brown Jobs.
Mrs. Action Line really enjoys watching the birds as they constantly bicker over the deluxe seed mix that Action Line dutifully sets out each day before sunrise.
There’s more than enough food for all. Yet the birds flap, chase each other, peck and fly around to the other side of the feeder to gain some sort of nonexistent advantage.
“Remind you of anything?” Mrs. Action Line asked. “They’re acting like people and toilet paper. People aren’t much more evolved than those LBJs.”
Once again, Mrs. Action Line is the clear voice in an increasingly foggy world.
Here’s an unproven theory about how goldfinches suddenly becoming brilliant yellow.
The birds are flock animals, and they don’t practice social distancing.
When one goldfinch turns yellow, so do the rest at a rapid pace until they are all the same color.
Um. Not so much.
This proves why we need to listen to experts and scientists.
And Durango has one of the world’s leading authorities on birds.
He’s Don Bruning, former head of the renowned ornithology department of the Brooklyn Zoo.
Don and his wife, Barbara, retired to Southwest Colorado several years ago and are two of the nicest folks you’ll ever meet.
“The change in plumage has more to do with the growing length of days in spring,” Don said.
“There are other factors, of course. But daylight has the most influence.”
For example, even when there’s a cold snap, the goldfinches continue to molt regardless but at a slower rate, he said.
“The molting period will be different for various areas, but the change happens in a relatively short time.”
There’s another possible reason why birds change color each season: predators and mating.
If finches were bright yellow in winter, they would be easy marks for hawks. Having grayish-brown winter plumage make sense from an evolutionary standpoint.
Then, in early spring, a flashy outfit of bright yellow feathers might be the key to hooking up, building a nest and raising a brood.
Birds do it, bees do it.
That, too, makes sense.
However, it doesn’t explain the reproduction of dull species, such as starlings, sparrows and accountants.
That population continues to multiply without the benefit of bright color.
In any case, if you want to watch goldfinches as you shelter in place, a thistle feeder or inexpensive thistle “sock” is the thing to get.
Goldfinches love the nyjer thistle. Don’t worry. The thistle you buy has been roasted so it won’t germinate.
It’s widely available at local stores.
Unlike toilet paper.
So pick some up on your next nonessential excursion.
Hang your feeder at least 6 feet away from the ground.
That social distance will keep your finches from contracting cats.
Email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or mail them to Action Line, The Durango Herald, 1275 Main Ave., Durango, CO 81301. You can request anonymity if your plan for bird-watching is just to wing it.