Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
More Food, Water, and Habitat Attract More Finches
March 02, 2019
by Steve Grinley
Some customers have started seeing goldfinches again and wondered where they had been all winter. They are often surprised to learn that the goldfinches never left – the males 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 more recognizable 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 other preferences. Their favorite foods are hulled sunflower, black-oil sunflower and Nyger (a.k.a. thistle.) There are also “finch mixes” that combine thistle with fine hulled sunflower for thistle feeders.
Goldfinches travel and feed in flocks most of the year. It is, therefore, important to have several places for them to feed so that there isn’t too much waiting-in-line or competition to get food. They also don’t like competition from other species as they will often give up and fly away when crowded out by other birds. Fortunately most of their desired seed can be offered in a feeder that won’t encourage competition.
Thistle feeders or finch feeders have tiny openings that will allow goldfinches to extract the tiny thistle seed. The small holes in finch feeders will limit the ability of birds with larger bills to extract the seed the way that finches do. They also minimize the waste associated with larger ports that allow lightweight thistle to blow right out. 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 feeding ports so that more birds can feed at once – some long tube feeders have up to twenty perches! Some feeders have spiral perches that accommodate more birds. Other designs have screening that allows the goldfinches to perch on the screen, accommodating more finches, and they pull the small seeds through the screening.
If too much competition comes from house finches (which are also pretty), there are “upside down” finch feeders with the port holes below the perches. Goldfinches are acrobatic and can feed upside down, whereas, the heavier house finches have a hard time with clinging and feeding in an inverted position.
Some competition may come from other winter finches. Pine siskins have shown up at our feeders occasionally, and redpolls have been spotted at feeders further north and west. These birds usually share the space at feeders and it is always fun to see more unusual birds in your yard.
An economical way to add more finch feeders is by using nylon thistle bags or “socks”. The finches will cling to the socks and pull seeds through. These don’t last as long as tube or screen feeders, but they can be washed and reused for a season or so.
If you should see finches only eating at the top of your thistle feeder, or not at all, it could be that the seed has gotten wet and packed down, especially with all the wet weather that we have been having. Thistle seed absorbs moisture easily, even through those tiny holes in a finch feeder. Each time you fill your feeder, mix the older seed with the new. One feeder design lets you also fill from the bottom, which done alternately, will help keep all the seed fresher.
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 and conjunctivitis in some finches, so it is important to keep your feeders clean and bacteria free. This is, of course, true of all your feeders, not just your thistle or finch feeders.
Your yard habitat can also be key to attracting more goldfinches and, in this regard, LESS work this spring and summer may be needed on your part. Goldfinches love dandelions, so less lawn care may be OK if your spouse or neighbors don’t object. The goldfinches prefer that you don’t cut the tops off your turning flowers such as marigolds, zinnias, cosmos or cone flowers. Goldfinches love the seeds!
Unlike some of the other feeder birds, goldfinches are exclusively seed eaters. As the weather warms, and as they have babies later in the summer, they do not feed them insects. Instead they provide their young with partially digested seed. That is why you will see them gorging themselves at the feeders during June and July as a full crop may feed their entire brood with each trip back to the nest.
Having water available for goldfinches is also important, just as it is for most other birds. Goldfinches have been partaking of our heated bird bath all winter. They need water year round, and providing water will further encourage them to visit your yard.
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.
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