When Dark-eyed Juncos return to our yard in the fall, we know that winter isn’t far behind. They spend spring and summer further north where they breed in Boreal forests. When Juncos move south in winter, they use a wider variety of habitats, like our gardens. In 2019, our first winter guests arrived at the end of October.
The first few Juncos that arrived in the fall were later to be joined by others. This flock of Juncos will hang out together all winter. When we go outside, they pop into the cedar hedge, or fly to the back hedgerow for safety. They aren’t as fearful as some other birds, so they soon re-emerge, along with cheerful Chickadees, once we stay still.
Polar bear dippers
We first spotted the Juncos at our stream. Like other sparrows, they love to bathe. They don’t mind the cold water either. Birds continue to bathe in the stream and pond whenever temperatures hover around 0°C. Once it gets colder than that, they only use the pond for drinking water.
While Juncos eat insects during breeding season, they mostly eat seeds in the winter. For years, they have been regulars at our feeders.
Now that I’m growing native plants, and leaving the seed heads standing throughout the winter, Juncos are eating seeds right off of the plants. They are entertaining to watch, whether they’re foraging on plants or on the ground. So far, their favourite natural seed sources have been Anise Hyssop, Little Bluestem, and different kinds of asters close to the house. It’s hard see exactly what they’re eating in the meadow and hedgerow.
It’s a good thing that Juncos and Goldfinches like Anise Hyssop seeds because this plant can self-seed prolifically. The year after I planted it, I had so many seedlings that I wondered if I had made a mistake. Anise Hyssop has so many good qualities though: seedlings are easy to pull, it is long-blooming, it provides design structure, and the bumblebees and butterflies really enjoy the flowers. Now that birds are eating lots of Anise Hyssop seeds, it is no longer a nuisance self-seeder.
Like Goldfinches, Juncos often climb up, or along, stems to reach seeds.
When Juncos search for seeds on the ground, they do little backward hops to uncover them beneath snow, soil, or leaf debris. It’s fun to watch. In the book Garden Birds of North America (at Ottawa Public Library), author George H. Harrison describes this Junco behaviour so eloquently that I have to share it with you:
“To uncover the food, they perform a jaunty foraging dance by shuffling backwards with both feet. The more snow on the ground, the more shuffling they must do. It is amusing to watch a flock of juncos all dancing the junco shuffle at once.”
It’s been wonderful seeing so many butterflies in our garden. I never know when one will show up though, so it’s still unexpected and exciting to see them. Here are a few tips I’ve learned to increase the chances of spotting butterflies.
Keep an eye on their favourite places
Adult butterflies visit flower patches looking for nectar-rich flowers for food. They’ll also hang around them scouting for a mate. I group at least 3 plants of each kind of flower, and repeat groups if space allows. These groupings make it easier for butterflies to find the flowers while they’re flying past, and provide lots of food in one spot.
Keep a close eye on favourite butterfly flowers, such as Purple Coneflowers, Anise Hyssop, Ironweed, and annuals like Mexican Tithonia and Brazilian Verbena. Late in the summer, I checked our Ironweed patch often, and found a variety of butterflies there. Ironweed is very tall — at least 7 feet — with bright purple blooms, and I have two groups of them in front of our hedgerow.
If you don’t have a garden of your own, you can visit a few butterfly gardens in Ottawa for free. Fletcher Wildlife Garden features many native flowers in a butterfly meadow, as well as a demonstration backyard garden. I always see butterflies when I’m there. Maplelawn Garden is a historic walled garden that was restored using an original Georgian garden plan. It includes classic garden flowers, a few native cultivars, and annuals all laid out in a formal style. In September, I visited Maplelawn Garden and saw dozens of migrating Monarchs and Painted Lady butterflies on annual salvias. Here’s my Youtube video of this stunning sight.
Host plants will also attract butterflies that are looking for a mate, or for a place to lay eggs. For example, if you stake out a patch of Milkweed plants in the summer, you’ll likely see Monarchs. Since many butterflies use native trees and shrubs as host plants, you may also find them in woodland clearings or forest edges.
A couple of years ago, our family was surprised to find a congregation of Black Swallowtail butterflies fluttering around on a hill near the Mooney’s Bay Playground. Apparently they were ‘hill-topping’, in which male butterflies hang out on top of a hill, and females will visit them there to mate.
Choose a sunny, calm afternoon
I don’t even bother looking for butterflies early in the morning because they aren’t active in cooler temperatures. They cannot fly when their body temperature is too low. Monarchs must be at least 13°C in order to fly, according to Journey North. Wait for the warmth of late mornings, afternoons, and early evenings.
If it’s cool, but still sunny, you might find butterflies warming up by basking on rocks or leaves in the sun. In September, I watched butterflies alternating between feeding on flowers in the increased shade and basking in the sun.
You’ll also increase your chances of seeing butterflies on calm days when it’s easier for them to fly.
Be still and give them some space
Butterflies are always on the look-out for predators. If you’re moving around nearby, if you get too close, or if you cast a shadow on or near them, they may mistake you for a predator and fly away. Use binoculars or camera for a better view. If you really can’t resist getting a closer look, move slowly toward them and stay lower to the ground.
When butterflies do get scared away, they’ll likely return to the floral food source. I’ve noticed that Monarchs will fly in a large circle, and then back to the same flowers.
Each summer, I see butterfly nets for sale in toy stores. You can enjoy and observe butterflies just fine without catching them in a net. You risk injuring their delicate wings in the process.
Be patient and watch for movement
Butterflies come and go when you least expect them, and they may not stick around for long. I park myself in the garden with my knitting so I can watch without getting bored.
Watch for movement. Once you stay put and observe, you’ll be surprised how much insect activity you’ll see. The same trick works for spotting birds. I sometimes see moving shadows on the ground, and then look up to find the butterfly or bird above.
Once I started finding butterflies, I realized how few kinds I had seen before. I use a mix of sources, in print and online, to identify unfamiliar butterflies. Here are a few of my favourites:
iNaturalist. I created an iNaturalist account (cornerpollinatorgarden) this summer, and I wish I had done it sooner. Once I upload a photo, iNaturalist suggests IDs. Usually within a day, I get confirmations or suggestions from other users. It’s tempting to get lazy and let iNaturalist and its more expert participants do the work for me, but I try to figure out an ID first.
The ROM Field Guide to Butterflies of Ontario, by Peter W. Hall et al. I use this to find out more information once I have narrowed down an ID. I like that it shows each butterfly’s caterpillar and provides interesting extra information. I’m particularly keen to discover each butterfly’s host plants to see if I have them already or might want to add them to my garden.
Butterflies and Moths of North America (BAMONA) is a good online source for more information once I have narrowed down an ID. It’s quicker, and lighter, to use BAMONA on my phone when I’m outside than a paper field guide.
This summer, I also discovered some new butterflies in the garden. I have been trying to attract them by adding more food plants: flowers with nectar for adults, and a variety of host plants for their caterpillars. My efforts are certainly paying off.
Great Spangled Fritillary butterflies
For the first time ever, I saw Great Spangled Fritillary butterflies. Over several weeks, we watched them drinking nectar from flowers.
I had read that Fritillaries use native violets as host plants. Since most people consider them an annoying weed, especially when they’re in lawns, they’re usually pulled out or mowed down. My neighbours kindly gave me some Common Blue Violets before they re-sodded their front lawn. I am letting them spread, along with Wild Strawberries, to form a natural, ‘living’ mulch beneath my hedgerow shrubs.
In the late summer, Fritillaries lay their eggs on or near violets. Newly hatched caterpillars don’t feed; instead they overwinter in leaf litter, and start eating fresh violet leaves the following spring.
Red Admiral butterflies
We only spotted Red Admirals a few times in our yard. I had heard from others that they were plentiful this year, but not for us.
Admittedly, Red Admirals are tricky to attract to the garden because their preferred host plants are nettles. Against my better judgement, I moved a Stinging Nettle seedling to my pollinator garden for Red Admirals. I now know that Stinging Nettle spreads vigorously through its root system and seeds. Controlling it is obviously a delicate, and sometimes painful, operation. I wouldn’t mind so much if I actually had Red Admiral caterpillars on the plant.
Next spring, I plan to move chunks of Stinging Nettles into big pots, surrounded by chicken wire to protect children and the dog, and dig out the rest. I’d also like to find False Nettle seeds, so I can try to attract Red Admirals in a less troublesome way.
Red Admirals may also use Hops as a host plant, like the Golden Hops vine that has spread from next door. This vine seems impossible to get rid of, despite our combined efforts on both sides of the back fence, so I don’t recommend planting it.
Another trait that makes Red Admirals more difficult to lure to the garden is that adults have an unusual diet. Instead of drinking nectar from flowers, they drink tree sap, fermented fruit, and bird droppings. While we do have a mature Sugar Maple in the back already, I’d like to add an apple or pear tree for the Red Admirals, as well as for us to eat.
A White Admiral butterfly
I only saw a White Admiral once. They lay eggs on a variety of shrubs and trees, such as the willow, birch, native cherries, and oak that are in our yard. The adult butterflies are also fans of sap, rotting fruit and animal droppings.
A Mourning Cloak butterfly
This Mourning Cloak wouldn’t pose with its wings open, so you can’t see the pretty blue dots that line the creamy edges of its wings. Like the Admirals, Mourning Cloaks also feed on sap and dung. They overwinter as adult butterflies, hiding under bark or leaves. Then, they emerge early in spring, even before flowers are in bloom, which may explain their unusual food preferences.
Mourning Cloaks will use willows as their host plant. I saw my first Mourning Cloak three years ago when we bought a Pussy Willow shrub at a fall nursery sale. I assume the butterfly hitchhiked home with us on the plant. They will also use Hackberry trees, like the one I chose for our front pollinator garden.
A few Blues
Up until a few years ago, I had no idea there were blue butterflies here in Ontario. On a Father’s Day walk at the local Pinhey Forest Trail, I spotted a tiny, ethereal, blue butterfly on the path. Since we spotted this butterfly in mid-June, I’m guessing it was a Summer Azure.
This summer, I spotted a tiny blue butterfly visiting our Heart-leaved Aster flowers. I managed to take a few pictures with my phone before it flew away. You can see how small the butterfly is compared with the equally small flowers of this aster.
Eastern Tailed Blues lay eggs on legumes. I hope it found a patch of Wild Lupines, Showy Tick Trefoil, Round-headed Bush Clover, Canada Milk Vetch, or Wild Blue Indigo in our garden. The caterpillars that overwinter may hide inside the legume seed pods — another reason not to clean up the garden in the fall.
A Duskywing butterfly
Here is another butterfly I had never heard of before — a Duskywing. It was drinking nectar from Mountain Mint flowers before resting on an adjacent yarrow. It is either a Coumbine Duskywing, which uses Wild Columbine as a host plant, or a Wild Indigo Duskywing, which uses, you guessed it, Wild Indigo. I have both host plants in the front pollinator garden where I found this butterfly, so that doesn’t help me narrow down an ID.
Every once in a while I found Skippers in the garden, too. They’re small, but quite distinctive-looking; they hold one set of wings up, and the other set out to the side. They use various native grasses as host plants.
Sharing some tips, too
Next time, I’ll share some butterfly spotting tips with you, as well as some interesting observations I’ve made of butterfly behaviours.
I must sound like a broken record. In most of my blog posts, I begin with a variation of: “Even though our native plantings are only a few years old, I see more insects/birds each year, and a greater diversity of insect/bird species.” Here I go again — in 2019, I saw so many butterflies, including ones I had never seen before.
There were multiple butterflies in our garden almost every day. They were around so often that I even stopped running outside with the camera every time someone shouted ‘BUTTERFLY!’ At times, I felt like a Disney princess with the butterflies fluttering around me as I worked outside. In the future, I may have to start weeding in a ball gown.
The most common butterflies were American and Painted Ladies, Black and Giant Swallowtails, Monarchs, and of course non-native Cabbage Whites. They seem particularly easy to attract in the garden by including their caterpillar food plants (called host plants), and a variety of nectar plants for the adult butterflies.
American Lady butterflies
American Ladies like open spaces with low vegetation, like our mini-meadow and hedgerow. The first generation lays eggs in spring on Pussytoes varieties and Pearly Everlasting. These native plants both have grey, fuzzy leaves, and small, but interesting white flowers. The caterpillars make distinctive webbed enclosures for protection from predators. Once an enclosure is too full of frass (poop), they build a new webbed hide-out. There were many caterpillars on my clumps of Pearly Everlasting, as well as a few on the Field Pussytoes I use as ‘living mulch’ in sunny areas.
Painted Lady butterflies
Painted Lady butterflies aren’t as fussy eaters, using up to 100 different plants as host plants, such as Thistles, Hollyhocks, and legumes. We found their caterpillars on Wild Lupines (a legume) growing in little pots on a table. This was a great vantage point for observing them, as well as for taking close-up photos.
American Lady and Painted Lady butterflies look very similar. BugGuide has a simple guide for distinguishing one from the other. I also think that Painted Ladies look more faded in colour than the American Ladies.
Some people assume that Painted Ladies are small Monarchs. While they’re both orange and black, Painted Ladies are smaller and have larger white spots. Since both butterflies migrate at the same time in late summer, we do often found them together drinking nectar from the same flowers.
Eastern Black Swallowtail butterflies
Eastern Black Swallowtail butterflies also frequented the garden this summer. They use some common non-native herbs as host plants, such as Dill, Fennel, Rue, and Parsley. They also use some invasive weeds, namely Queen Anne’s Lace and Wild Parsnip, as host plants. This might explain why there are so many of them around.
Male and Female Black Swallowtails look quite different on the inside of their wings — the males have more yellow spots, whereas the females have more blue — but I can’t tell the difference from the outside of their wings. For identification tips, see this University of Wisconsin-Madison page, or this University of Florida page.
The caterpillars of Black Swallowtail butterflies are sometimes mistaken for Monarch caterpillars because they both have black, yellow, and white stripes. Monarch caterpillars are only found on Milkweed plants, while Black Swallowtail caterpillars are not found on Milkweed.
Giant Swallowtail butterflies
Giant Swallowtails are a spectacular sight, with a wingspan of up to 6 1/2-inches, and a very graceful flight. While they drink nectar from flowers, however, they are ridiculously frantic; perhaps they are so big that they have to hover while they drink. Starting in mid-summer, Giant Swallowtail butterflies began visiting our back garden for nectar. The preferred my brightest, gaudiest flowers in our mini-meadow.
Although I had planted a few Giant Swallowtail host plants, 2 Hop trees and a clump of Rue, we never found any caterpillars on them.
I have never seen so many Monarchs in the garden before; they were drinking nectar, basking, roosting, mating, and laying eggs. You can find more about ‘our’ Monarchs in my past blog post A great summer for Monarchs.
Even more butterflies
Well, I saw so many butterflies in the garden this summer, that I can’t fit them all into a reasonable-sized blog post. This is a good problem to have! In my next post, I’ll show you some of the new butterflies I spotted, and share tips for butterfly watching.
I used to think that our back yard was just too big. At the very end, there is a 10-foot high chain-link fence that separates our yard from the high school field beyond. Each spring, I battled a tangle of tree seedlings, vines, and weeds that sprung up near the fence. I dreamed of creating another English-style border, but I never seemed to get past the initial weed-clearing process.
These unwanted plants had free reign in my absence. I spent several years caring for our young children and my ailing parents. I had no time for gardening. When I finally returned to the back yard, it did not resemble the garden I had made years before. Although it was wild, I had to admit that it wasn’t all bad. Self-seeding plants had wandered from their designated places, but had created some lovely new combinations. I tried to be positive and saw the unkempt garden as an opportunity to do something different.
I noticed a lot of bird activity along the back fence that spring — something I had never seen before. The tree seedlings had grown into small trees. I recognized the dreaded European Buckthorn, but I couldn’t identify the other spindly trees. Whatever they were, the birds liked them, so I decided to read up on bird gardening.
I learned that I had multiple Chokecherries and Hawthorn trees. They’re small native trees that provide food for birds: birds may eat the pollinators the visit the flowers in spring, birds feed their chicks moth and butterfly caterpillars that use the trees as host plants, and birds eat the fruit that develops later in the summer. Birds also find shelter in these trees, and make nests in Hawthorns because they are protected from predators by the spikes that grow along the branches.
The National Audubon Society’s book The Bird Garden (at Ottawa Public Library) contains an illustration called “The Economical Hedgerow” (page 19). It shows birds sitting on a wire, dropping excrement containing seeds. The seeds germinate, and grow into shrubs and trees that will provide shelter and food for birds. I’m sure that our Chokecherries and Hawthorns were planted by birds sitting on the wires above our back fence! The birds started to plant a hedgerow — and I decided to continue planting it.
Where to begin?
Almost everything I could find on planting hedgerows is from the UK. There, hedgerows have been used for centuries as living fences around fields. Hedgerows mimic natural shrub lands or forest edges. They contain a mix of deciduous and coniferous shrubs and trees that produce fruit, seeds, and nuts. Vines and other flowering plants grow beneath and around the woody plants. Hedgerows in the UK provide vital habitat for birds, small animals, and insects. They also connect with each other, and with remaining woodlands, becoming wildlife corridors. Sadly, many hedgerows in the UK have been ripped out to create larger fields that will accommodate modern agricultural machinery.
Obviously, the hedgerow information from the UK recommends shrubs and trees that aren’t native here in Ottawa. All the bird gardening books stress the importance of native plants for birds. So, what should I plant here in my hedgerow? Thankfully, the Fletcher Wildlife Garden web site, maintained by the Ottawa Field Naturalists, has a page on Creating a hedgerow for wildlife. It includes an overview of hedgerow ecology, and lists native shrubs for hedgerows in sunny or shadier locations. Perfect!
Finding native shrubs for sale
It took a while to find native shrubs and piece together our hedgerow. I started with Pussy Willow, Serviceberry, Elderberry, Gray Dogwood, and Wild Raisin Viburnum. The Pussy Willow provides insects for birds, Serviceberry and Elderberry offer fruit in the summer, and Gray Dogwood and Viburnum bear later fruit for migrating birds.
That first winter, I learned that rabbits also enjoy eating native shrubs. Resident Cottontail Rabbits ate the Serviceberries and Viburnums to the ground. To fill in shadier spots in the hedgerow, and the gaps created by rabbits, I later added Purple-flowering Raspberry, Hop tree (for Giant Swallowtail butterflies), American Hazelnut, Wild Plum, Winterberry (male and females), and Nannyberry Viburnum.
That may seem like a lot of shrubs. Hedgerows are often planted densely, so I placed my shrubs about 1 1/2 yards apart. I can always cut some down after the hedgerow fills in if I find it too crowded. With the unexpected rabbit pruning this may take a while. They have to eat too, so I try not to get too annoyed with them.
When I arranged, and re-arranged, the hedgerow, I tried to mix up autumn leaf colours. I also placed the Winterberries front and centre, so we can see them from the house in the winter. Whenever I find Black Raspberry seedlings around the yard, I’ve been moving them to an area of the hedgerow; I’m not sure if I will some day regret creating thorny tangle of brambles. As well, the shrubs beneath the Hawthorne have struggled, so I will move them next year and try Spikenard in their place. Hedgerows should include a few conifers, so I’ll keep this in mind if any other shrubs need to be replaced.
Planting beneath and around the shrubs
I’ve also been planting native ground covers, for part-shade and shade, in the hedgerow. So far, my favourite combination has been Violets and Wild Strawberry, both of which I transplanted from the lawn. These patches are alive with small pollinators in the spring. I’ve also been adding spring woodland plants under the shrubs: Canada Anemone, Canada Columbine, Virginia Waterleaf, Woodland Sunflower, Zigzag Goldenrod, and White Wood Aster are all allowed to spread freely in the hedgerow — as these plants are wont to do.
More, more, more!
Our hedgerow connects with other vines and trees that are already growing along the fence in neighbouring yards to create a natural highway along our block.
There is a saying that “shrubs shrink the yard” and it certainly seems true. While my back yard once seemed too big, I now wish I had room for even more native shrubs. In fact, this summer I created a new hedgerow along one side of our back yard to join up with the hedgerow along the back fence.
A couple of years ago, I planted a Crabapple tree that bears small fruit for birds to eat in winter. Last year, there were only a few berries and I didn’t spot anything eating them. This year has been a different story. In mid-November, during an unusually cold and snowy week, the birds entertained us as they feasted on the Crabapples.
Room with a (garden) view
I’m a big fan of Margaret Roach’s A Way to Garden blog, podcast, and books. Roach explains that birds taught her to garden at her rural New York state home, meaning that her garden attracts birds by meeting their needs. She shares plant suggestions and garden design tips that have guided many of my own decisions. With winter almost here, I am reminded of Roach’s valuable advice to Look out the window: garden design 101. Simply put, choose plants and strategically place garden beds, so you can enjoy them, and the wildlife they attract, from within your house.
When it comes to cold, snowy weather, I’m a real wimp — very un-Canadian! I blame my Reynaud Syndrome, which quickly turns my fingers deathly white. If I’m going to enjoy our wildlife garden in winter, it must be from indoors. I’ve designed the gardens accordingly, by looking out our windows as I dream and plan.
First of all, in the backyard, we placed the circulating steam/pond within view from our patio door. Beside the pond, I planted a ‘Prairie Fire’ Crabapple tree, which has beautiful pink flowers in spring and red fruit in winter. I clustered 5 Red Osier Dogwood shrubs nearby so we can enjoy their bright red stems peeking out of the snow, and the bird that eat their berries. I then added a variety of native bird seed plants, such as Purple Coneflowers and Anise Hyssop, to attract Goldfinches and Juncos.
A feast for birds…
Last year, all of these plants were still small, so we didn’t see much wildlife activity. This year has been much more successful. We even removed the window screen, so I can open the glass door to take unobstructed photos of our backyard visitors. Even as a beginner, amateur photographer, I was able to capture some amazing sights!
…and other creatures
We were also delighted to see other critters eating the Crabapples, too. Apparently, mid-November was still too early for Chipmunks to be hiding out in their dens for winter. We got to watch our resident Chippies doing gymnastics and eating right outside the window on another Crabapple tree. Of course, wherever there is food, you also find Black and Grey Squirrels.
Plant small-fruiting Crabapples
Crabapples are an easy fruit to provide for overwintering birds. While it can be difficult to find native shrubs (that produce berries for birds), nurseries reliably sell Crabapple trees each spring because they feature pretty, fragrant flowers that appeal to customers.
If you buy Crabapple trees that grow small fruit, they can be a valuable food source for birds throughout fall and winter. In Crabapples for birds, Johnson’s nursery in Wisconsin explains that Crabapple fruits vary in hardness; the softer the fruit, the earlier it is ready for birds to eat. They list numerous small-fruiting Crabapple varieties, grouped according to when they’re soft enough for birds. For example, in this list my ‘Prairie Fire’ Crabapple trees provide mid-winter season fruit; obviously with our colder Ottawa weather, the timing of this list is off. It is still useful though, if you use it more as a guide for which Crabapples are ready earlier, in the middle, or later. Since My ‘Rosthern’ Crabapples are ready quite early, and ‘Prairie Fire’ is ready now, I’d like to add another Crabapple that will be ready later in winter.
The popularity of Crabapple trees in urban areas encourages fruit-eating Robins to hang around in winter. According to the Michigan State University Extension page American Robin: Harbringer of spring or year-round resident?, Robin migration is determined more by food supply than temperature. In winter, they form nomadic flocks that show up wherever there is abundant fruit.
The commonly-available Crabapple cultivars aren’t native. However, in Bringing Nature Home, Douglas Tallamy explains that these non-native Crabapples are very similar to native trees (page 166). They are successfully used by the moth and butterfly caterpillars that use native Crabapples as a host plant. I have never seen native Crabapple trees for sale, so at lease non-native ones seem okay to plant too.
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.