What is the State Bird of Washington (And Why?)

Washington state is known for many areas of forest, which attracts many bird species. It is the 18th largest state by area and the 13th most populous in the United States. The state animal for Washington is the Olympic marmot, but what is the state bird?

The state bird proved a point of contentious debate in the state of Washington. After more than two decades of voting and arguing, the state chose the American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) officially in 1951. The tiny canary, also known as the eastern goldfinch, features a short bill shaped like a cone and an equally short tail, notable for its fork.

The state bird for Washington, the American Goldfinch

The state bird for Washington, the American Goldfinch

Why is the American Goldfinch the state bird for Washington?

Not once, but twice, schoolchildren in the state of Washington chose the American Goldfinch for its state bird. It did have fierce competition. There were three contests, and the wild canary won two out of three.

In 1928, kids in the Evergreen State voted and chose the meadowlark. The Washington Legislature shied from that choice, though, because its geographical neighbor, Oregon, had just chosen that bird as its state bird. The Legislature also noted six other states also had the meadowlark as their state bird.

Three years later, the Washington Federation of Women’s Clubs held a second contest. The American goldfinch beat out the junco, pileated woodpecker, song sparrow, and western tanager.

The Legislature did not act for some unknown reason. Finally, in 1951, schoolkids voted in the third contest and again chose the canary, but this time the goldfinch won unanimously. The Legislature acted, making it official.

Female American Goldfinch, perched on a branch

Female American Goldfinch, perched on a branch

When did the American Goldfinch become the state bird for Washington?

The state of Washington named its official bird in 1951 in three legal steps after its schoolchildren chose the bird. The Senate passed its bill on March 1, while the House passed its bill on March 6. The Governor signed the law into effect on March 19, 1951. The state shares the American Goldfinch as a state bird with New Jersey and Iowa.

A male American Goldfinch eating from a feeder

A male American Goldfinch eating from a feeder

What does the state bird of Washington look like?

The American Goldfinch rivals the hummingbird in tininess. They grow to a length of about 4.25 inches with a wingspan of about twice that - 7.5 to 8.7 inches. Their weight remains proportional to their length. The smaller of these little birds weigh about .39 ounces, while larger specimens weigh up to .79 ounces.

Regardless of its age, this vivid yellow canary stays dainty and tiny in size. A speck of yellow scooting across the Washington sky surely signals the eastern goldfinch is exploring its territory. No matter the time of year, you can easily spot these little birds since they hold their plumage throughout the seasons.

The two genders of birds differ slightly, with the male canary sporting a black forehead and beak. His chest and upper body appear yellow, while he grows white feathers on his rump. Her feathers grow an olive-yellow hue, including her chest, upper body, and rump. Her wing feathers grow brown, as does her tail feathers. Both males and females have pale legs. In winter, the male of the species changes feather color to match the female.

Male American Goldfinch

Male American Goldfinch

How do these birds behave?

The phrase to sing like a canary produces a misnomer because only the male American Goldfinch sings his whole life. The female canary sings only until she has children. Once the molt, she stops singing. After birth, the only song heard from the canary nest is that of the husband. He’s typically teaching the chicks to sing. Their birdsong sounds high-pitched and rapid-fire, a bit like machine gunfire.

The canary isn’t born with an innate song. These intellectual birds learn to sing, usually from their father, beginning at the age of six weeks. If the brood doesn’t learn from their parent, they can learn at a later time from another canary or from another species – the human. Typically, a canary learns songs from birth until about nine months. It is at nine months that the birds start singing. This denotes the age of maturity for this bird species.

Before and after mating, the canary hunts, forages, and sings. It keeps pretty busy with these three daytime activities. The eastern Goldfinch might forage and hunt with its spouse or in a small flock.

A pair of American Goldfinches (left female and right male)

A pair of American Goldfinches (left female and right male)

Do American Goldfinches form communities?

American Goldfinches do live in extended communities with other canaries, other types of finches, and pine siskins. They typically fly in flocks. While they willingly hunt with other birds, when it comes to their home life, they keep it all in the family.

A male and female canary, once coupled, mate for life. Together, they build a nest and procreate.

Their nests consist of thistles, milkweed, and other fibrous plants. Blending these with twigs and sticks, they create their home. Once constructed, they’ll remain there for life. They don’t migrate and prefer the same habitat season to season, year to year.

Canaries like big families. Each breeding season, they breed up to three times. Since each pregnancy can result in two to seven eggs, a canary couple can conceivably produce 21 children in a single year. They mate each year.

Each year, their nesting period starts in late June. It can begin as late as early July. The birds determine mating season has begun by when the plants go to seed. This creates a plentiful food source for the American Goldfinch.

Once the male impregnates the female, she lays the eggs, then stays with them to incubate them. The incubation period takes about two weeks.

The canary couple care for the babies, feeding them, and teaching them to forage. The father teaches them to sing. Once mature, at nine months of age, they embark on the journey to find their own mate. They sing to attract their monogamous mate, build their own nest, and breed. This creates a large canary population.

Male American Goldfinch in non-breeding plumage

Male American Goldfinch in non-breeding plumage

What do American Goldfinches eat?

Canaries love the seeds of weeds. They can be wild seeds, or you can stock a bird feeder with a seed mix designed for canaries. The cone shape of their beak provides them a built-in tool to open thistles and seeds.

These birds are so efficient that they eat the seeds from their nest materials – nyger, thistle seed, ragweed seed, and sunflower seeds. One of their favorite delicacies is dandelions.

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