Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Goldfinches Thrive with Proper Food and Water
March 06, 2021
By Steve Grinley
Some of our customers have noticed goldfinches at their feeders again and wondered where the birds had gone. They were surprised to learn that the goldfinches never left – they merely had changed into their drab olive winter apparel. Now a few of the males are starting to show a little more yellow in the face. As spring approaches, male goldfinches will slowly turn back to their yellow and black breeding plumage. Even the females will appear more yellow in the months ahead.
The best way to attract goldfinches is to be aware of their feeding habits and preferences. Their favorite foods are hulled sunflower, black-oil sunflower and Nyger. There are also finch mixes that combine Nyger with fine hulled sunflower.
Goldfinches travel and feed in flocks. It is, therefore, important to have several places for them to feed so that there isn’t too much “waiting in line” to get food. Most of their desired seed can be offered in a feeder that won’t encourage much competition. Nyger feeders or finch feeders have tiny openings that will allow goldfinches to extract the small Nyger seed and fine sunflower chips easily and minimize the waste associated with the lightweight seed blowing out of standard feeders. Hulled sunflower can be offered in feeders that allow only small birds to perch or cling, as goldfinches do, eliminating competition from larger birds.
Many thistle feeders have multiple ports so more birds can feed at once. Pine siskins or redpolls might mix with the goldfinches during winter months. House finches may also feed from Nyger feeders year ‘round. If there is too much competition from house finches (which are also quite pretty), there are “upside down” finch feeders with the seed hole below the perch. Goldfinches are acrobatic and can feed upside down, whereas, the heavier house finches have a hard time with inverted feeding.
An economical way to add more feeders is by using nylon thistle socks. The finches will cling to the socks and pull seeds through. These don’t last as long as tube feeders, and are more susceptible to squirrels, but they can be washed and reused for a season or so.
If you see finches only eating at the top of the Nyger feeder, it could be that the seed is getting wet and packed down. Nyger seed and fine sunflower chips absorb moisture easily, even through those tiny holes in a finch feeder. Each time you fill the feeder, empty it and mix the existing seed with the new. One feeder design lets you also fill from the bottom, which done alternately, will help keep all the seed in the feeder more fresh.
If the seed has been in there too long and the birds stop coming completely, empty the feeder, throw the old seed away, wash the feeder thoroughly and let it dry. Then fill it with fresh seed. There have been reports of salmonella in pine siskins that feed with goldfinches so it is important to keep your feeders clean and bacteria free, especially with the warmer weather coming. This is, of course, true of all your feeders – keep the clean.
Unlike some of the other feeder birds, goldfinches are exclusively seed eaters. As the weather warms, and as they have babies in the summer, they do not feed them insects. Instead they provide their young with partially digested seed. That’s why you’ll see them gorging themselves at the feeders during July and early August, as a full crop may feed their entire brood with each trip back to the nest.
Having water available to goldfinches is also important, just as it is for other birds. They need water year round, and providing water will encourage them to visit your yard. Goldfinches are our most regular visitors to our bird baths for a drink of water.
Goldfinches tend to wander widely to feed, so don’t be surprised if they are more erratic at your feeders than other species. They take advantage of natural food when it is available. But if you provide the right habitat, the right food in the right feeders, along with a source of water, you’ll have hours of enjoyment watching these “wild canaries” of the bird world grace your backyard.