For the Birds: Goldfinches brighten the landscape

Here is the latest For the Birds column, which runs in several New England newspapers.

Photo by Chris Bosak An American Goldfinch rests on a sunflower in New England.

Photo by Chris Bosak
An American Goldfinch rests on a sunflower in New England.

N othing cheers up a day like a goldfinch. Those little, bright bursts of yellow are always a welcome site at your feeder, bird bath or perched on a flower in your garden.

I especially appreciate goldfinches in the dead of summer. I remember taking a walk a few years ago on one of those classic hot, humid days in August. It was the middle of the afternoon and, not surprisingly, I was finding very little in terms of wildlife. Dragonflies were dancing all over the place, but even the butterflies seemed to be hiding from the heat.

Suddenly, I heard the cheerful song of a goldfinch in flight coming up from behind me. I turned just in time to see the bright yellow bird perch on the top of a thistle flower. The pink-and-purple flower rocked back and forth as it reacted to the weight of the tiny bird. When the flower settled, the goldfinch went about its business of picking at the flower.

I watched the scene briefly, and continued my walk. About five minutes later, I heard the bird again. I looked up to see it fly over my head and disappear into the distance. Despite its tiny size — about 5 inches — the goldfinch is an easy bird to identify in flight. It flies quickly in an undulating fashion — like a roller coaster with small rises and falls — usually uttering its potato-chip, potato-chip song as it bounces up and down.

I didn’t see any other birds on that walk, but the single goldfinch perched on the flower made it all worthwhile.

Goldfinches also score points with me as they are frequently seen in my garden. I’ve seen goldfinches perched atop coneflower and black-eyed Susan flowers, picking away at the seeds. I’ve also seen them on sunflowers.

Goldfinches, of course, are also reliable feeder birds, often occupying every perch of a tube feeder. I love to see all six perches of my blue tube feeder occupied by the bright yellow birds.

Goldfinches will eat sunflower seeds and will visit platform or tube feeders. A sure way to attract goldfinches is to offer Nyjer in a tube feeder specifically designed for the tiny seeds. Do not try to use thistle seeds in a regular feeder as the tiny seeds will spill through the holes.

“Sock” feeders stuffed with thistle seeds are a good alternative.

Goldfinches visit feeders at any time of the day. It’s interesting to note that goldfinches move on frequently so the birds you see at your feeder in the evening are not likely the same ones you saw in the morning.

Goldfinches are found throughout the country and many remain in New England through the winter months. They are not the flashy yellow birds we love so much in the summer, though. We still love them in the winter, of course, but they are much duller, often appearing olive or brownish.

It’s fun to see the splotchy male goldfinches in the early part of spring as they slowly regain their bright yellow plumage. Only the males are bright yellow. Females are a duller yellow.

They also have black caps and black wings with white stripes. My brother Ed and his wife, Debbie, are big Pittsburgh Steelers fans, so the goldfinch is a favorite in that household.

Of course, you don’t have to be a Steelers fan to appreciate the beauty of a goldfinch. The bright yellow speaks for itself. Throw in a purple or pink flower and you’ve got real proof that Mother Nature likes her colors.

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A frosty morning at the feeding station

Photo by Chris Bosak An American Goldfinch eats Nyjer seeds from a frozen feeder during a frosty April 2016 morning in Danbury, Conn.

Photo by Chris Bosak
An American Goldfinch eats Nyjer seeds from a frozen feeder during a frosty April 2016 morning in Danbury, Conn.

For the second day in a row the unpredictable New England weather provided an opportunity to get an interesting photo at the bird feeding station. Monday it was snow. Tuesday it was ice. Here, an American Goldfinch visits the Nyjer feeder, undaunted by the ice and freezing temperatures. Notice that this male is transitioning into its breeding plumage. Below are a few more icy photos from Merganser Lake.

Photo by Chris Bosak Ice covers a daffodil bloom in Fairfield County on a chilly Tuesday morning.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Ice covers a daffodil bloom in Fairfield County on a chilly Tuesday morning.

Photo by Chris Bosak Ice covers the branches of a tree in Danbury, Conn., April 2016.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Ice covers the branches of a tree in Danbury, Conn., April 2016.

American Goldfinch at window feeder

American Goldfinch at window feeder.

American Goldfinch at window feeder.

99.9 percent of the birds that visit the window feeder right over
my desk are either titmice or chickadees. 
I love seeing them, but a little variety would be nice. 
So it was a nice surprise to see these American Goldfinches pay a 
visit the other day. 
Photo taken with iPhone.

How do birds know when a new feeder is out?

Here’s my latest For the Birds Column, which runs weekly in The Hour (Norwalk, Conn.) and The Keene (N.H.) Sentinel:

Photo by Chris Bosak A Northern Cardinal, left, and an American Goldfinch perch in a tree near a feeding station at Cove Island Wildlife Sanctuary in Stamford, Conn., in March 2015.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Northern Cardinal, left, and an American Goldfinch perch in a tree near a feeding station at Cove Island Wildlife Sanctuary in Stamford, Conn., in March 2015.

 

An interesting question came my way via email the other day. It came from a long-time Norwalk resident who wondered how the goldfinches in her yard knew that she suddenly switched to Nyjer seed. She had never seen goldfinches before at her feeders, but when she put up a sock feeder filled with the small, black seeds, the goldfinches came within one day.

“How did they know? Are they sock experts? Do they have X-Ray eyes that could penetrate the sock and see the thistle? Does thistle smell so they could sniff a trail? Do they have scouts always watching every yard?”

Great question. As a quick aside, what is commonly referred to as thistle seed is really either niger or the trademarked name Nyjer seed.

Whatever you call it, how do the birds know it’s there? Common sense may dictate that they smell it. How else could they know? But most birds, including our favorite backyard birds, have a poor sense of smell. Also, the seeds are largely odorless so even if the birds did have a strong sense of smell, it’s unlikely they’d be able to pick up the scent anyway. It’s not like a neighbor barbecuing chicken on a breezy day. The most likely scenario is that the birds saw the new feeder and recognized it — probably from past experience — as a food source. American Goldfinches are very nomadic  …

Read the rest of the column here.

Two backyard favorites in one shot

Photo by Chris Bosak A Northern Cardinal, left, and an American Goldfinch perch in a tree near a feeding station at Cove Island Wildlife Sanctuary in Stamford, Conn., in March 2015.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Northern Cardinal, left, and an American Goldfinch perch in a tree near a feeding station at Cove Island Wildlife Sanctuary in Stamford, Conn., in March 2015.

You don’t always see cardinals and goldfinches perched near each other, but when you are watching a feeding station at which the birds are somewhat skittish, anything can happen. The usual assortment of birds were enjoying the feast at Cove Island Wildlife Sanctuary in Stamford, Conn., the other day, but other than occasionally being perched on the same feeder, the species generally kept away from each other.

However, the birds scattered every five minutes or so because of some unseen (by me anyway) force and sometimes the birds would find themselves perched next to an individual of another species.

I was focused on getting a photo of this cardinal, but noticed the goldfinch off to the right, so I decided to get them in the same frame. Why not?