While we’ve had birdseed feeders for years, we never saw birds eating seeds directly off of plants — because there were no seeds for them to eat. In the past, I painstakingly cut spent flowers to keep the garden looking tidy. Each fall I cut back plants, again, to keep them tidy. Tidy gardens aren’t very useful to birds though, or any other wildlife.
A not-so-tidy garden full of life
Now I grow many native plants that provide nectar and pollen for pollinators, leaves for insects to eat, and nutritious seeds and berries for birds. I’m aiming for a more naturalistic style. Instead of deadheading flowers and cutting them back each autumn, I leave them as a seed buffet for birds to eat from late summer well into winter.
While the garden doesn’t look as tidy, the seed heads do provide structure and visual interest until the deep winter snow covers them up. It’s also a lot less work! With these simple changes, we’re rewarded with beautiful birds visiting our plants, and hours of entertainment.
Cirque du Goldfinch
We now attract lots of bright yellow American Goldfinches, sometimes called wild canaries. I recently discovered that a group of Goldfinches is called a Charm. While they’re eating seeds off of plants, they certainly live up to their name. When we hear their excited twittering, we know to look at their favourite plants to find them. Once we spot stems swaying wildly back-and-forth, and bending toward the ground, we know exactly where they are. Time to get out the binoculars and camera. (They are easily spooked if you get too close, or move around too quickly, so we observe them from a distance.)
Goldfinches remind me of circus acrobats — swiftly climbing stem poles, carefully shuffling along bent stems like tightropes, and even hanging upside down. They’ll do whatever it takes to reach the tasty seeds. I have yet to capture their gymnastics on video, so photos will have to do.
What do the preceding photos have in common? Purple Coneflowers, a southern Ontario native plant — and a Goldfinch delicacy. In our front and back yards, they also enjoy the seeds of Cup Plant, Brown-and Black-eyed Susans, and both Woodland and Tall Sunflowers. All of these yellow flowers provide good camouflage, as well as good food. These flowers are all composites — meaning that they are actually many small flowers grouped together in single flower-like structures — so they pack lots of seeds in one spot.
Last year, we also watched Goldfinches eating Anise Hyssop seeds.
Plants preferable to feeders
By providing Goldfinches with plenty of seeds on plants, we’ve reduced their reliance on feeders. Finches are highly susceptible to the Finch Eye Disease, which spreads easily from infected birds to other finches when they all use the same feeder. You can also reduce the risk by bleaching feeders regularly. While the disease itself isn’t always fatal, it makes it more difficult for infected birds to see, find food, and avoid predators. I have seen infected House Finches use our feeders in the past, so I try my best to follow this expert advice.
In the fall garden
In the summer, we usually see Goldfinches in breeding pairs. In the fall, they hang out in busy, chattering flocks. For several days, we watched them eating native clematis (Virgin’s Bower) seeds in the backyard hedgerow.
While they aren’t long-distance migrants, they do move south when the cold weather arrives. All About Birds explains that they “move south in winter following a pattern that seems to coincide with regions where the minimum January temperature is no colder than 0 degrees Fahrenheit on average.”
By November, only a few tough Goldfinches were still visiting the garden. We had an unusually cold and snowy spell in mid-November, so I’m sure this bird wished he’d joined the other Goldfinches that had already flown south.
Goldfinches eat so many seeds because they are strict vegetarians. They even feed their babies seed mush, unlike other songbirds that feed insects to their young. With a diet of dry seeds, they often visit our artificial stream to drink and bathe.
American Goldfinches nest in mid-summer, which is late compared to other birds.
According to All About Birds, they wait until milkweed and thistle fluff is available to line their nests. They’re also waiting for an abundant supply of fresh seeds to feed their chicks.
I’m allowing Common Milkweed to spread in a corner of our yard to feed Monarch caterpillars. I’ve also grew a few native, non-aggressive Pasture Thistles for Goldfinches. Perhaps these milkweed and thistle patches will also entice Goldfinches to nest in our yard next year.