Some of my customers have started seeing goldfinches 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 (and it will, despite the weather) male goldfinches will slowly turn back to their yellow and black breeding or alternate 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, habitat, nesting and water needs. Their favorite foods are hulled sunflower, black-oil sunflower and nyger thistle. There are also finch mixes that combine thistle 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. 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 much competition. Thistle feeders or finch feeders have tiny openings that will allow goldfinches to extract the tiny thistle seed and minimize the waste associated with lightweight thistle 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. Some even have spiral perches that accommodate more birds. Other designs have several tubes to feed even more finches. If too much competition comes from house finches (which are also pretty), there are "upside down" finch feeders with the port hole below the perch. Goldfinches are acrobatic and can feed upside down, whereas, the heavier house finches have a hard time with clinging and inverted feeding.
Another 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, but they can be washed and reused for a season or so.
If you see finches eating only at the top of the thistle feeder, or not at all, it could be that the seed is getting 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 the feeder, empty it and mix the older seed with the new. One feeder design lets you also fill from the bottom, which when 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 in redpolls, who also eat thistle, so it is important to keep your feeders clean and bacteria free. This is, of course, true of all your feeders, not just thistle.
Habitat can 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 necessary. The goldfinches prefer that you don't cut the tops off your marigolds, zinnias, cosmos or cone flowers as they turn. 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 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 June and July 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 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.
Steve Grinley is the owner of Bird Watcher's Supply and Gift at the Route 1 traffic circle in Newburyport and the Nature Shop at Joppa Flats.