Published Date Written by David EastmanLooking out at the now brilliant lemon-yellow plumage of a few male goldfinches feeding on black oil sunflower seed reminds me that these birds only nest late in the summer months, because they need small seeds available then to feed their young. I almost forgot that, even while I enjoy their presence. This is the bird species I am attracting at the hanging feeders outside my window, while also hoping black bears haven't found the small, blackish seed supply. I can afford to keep feeding these goldfinch pairs, and any other finch species like siskins that wants to partake in this nutritious "black gold" but need to take in the feeders nightly. Nocturnal raccoons will also show up to devour this high energy food supply.
The colorful little finches' preference for our native thistle and other weed seeds puts their breeding time out-of-phase with the other birds of spring, who capitalize on the emerging insect life then. Though goldfinches are known to eat some insects during the summer months, they stick with the seeds of dandelion, goldenrod, asters, mullein, chicory, burdock, and wild sunflowers. Their young are fed these seeds, regurgitated from the parent birds' crops in a slurry.
So, the female goldfinch doesn't select her nest until July--out in open country with scattered trees. Once the weeds of summer are producing abundant seed heads, the goldfinches commence their reproductive cycle. The olive-colored female selects the site, often in the wetter corner of a brushy field or pasture. Young maple saplings taking over such a site are ideal for her choice. An overgrown field that has gotten a bit out of the landowner's control is where the goldfinch reproduces. She builds her tightly woven nest in the crotch of one of these saplings or sprout groups, anywhere from one to 30 feet off the ground. Four or more upright branches are selected for this durable, neat cup of fine vegetable fibers—lined with thistle, milkweed, and cattail down. She completes this tight little nest in 4-5 days. She will also fondly use spider web or fall webworm's silk in the construction. There are tragic accounts of her getting stuck in this cobweb material, too, due to her size and lacking the strength to escape her entanglement if this occurs.
It is also well known in birding circles that the female goldfinch builds such a thick nest wall that it can actually hold water! This, too, has occasionally led to disaster for the tiny species, because heavy summer rains like we experienced last year have been known to drown the unattended nestlings. The mother bird must remain in place and spread her wings, umbrella-like, to preserve her offspring's lives and create a living roof to shield her own nest.
I have friends who love this bird so, that they intentionally leave thistle plants alone on their property to invite its presence. Find this spiny plant with its purple blooms in a field, and the goldfinches will certainly be nearby. They have an umbilical relationship with the plant. Before long, you will see goldfinches undulating in flight like flashing gold streaks, invoking the image of escaped canaries. Winging across a thistle field in cheery flight, making their "potato-chip" calls as they do, goldfinches will alight on the thistle heads. They will hang upside down in the summer sunshine, and pluck out several clumps of thistle-down to get to the seeds underneath. It is one of the few birds of New England's meadowlands that are not dismayed by the plants drooping under their own weight.
Goldfinches will ride a plant unconcernedly, swaying as they continue plucking at the seedhead, even until it bends down and touches the earth. On breezy days, their acrobatic tendencies are to be applauded, and well worth one's stopping to watch the show. Enjoy their yellow contrasting with purple!
They are adroit at plucking out very small seeds of dandelion heads, your lettuce where it has gone to bolt, or harvesting the weed patches of late summer. Goldfinches' tiny bills can slit the backside of a small seed capsule, feeding on the nearly invisible kernel within. Intent on their feast, the flocking yellow birds will flit from one abundant early fall harvest patch to another, obviously eating many weed seeds in the process. Dropping in on the remains of your garden, they will feed on the heads of zinnias, coreopsis, cosmos, and beets.
The rest of the year, before the goldfinches have fled to the south of us, these tiny birds extract the seeds of the birches, buttonbush, and ragweed. They will commonly enjoy the seed catkins of the yellow birches, feeding effortlessly there with the pine siskins. Enjoy their finesse, and smile as you hear their "Swee-e-eet" call outside your window while they remain until early winter.