American Goldfinches are regulars in our Maryland yard. With the exception of a couple times a year when they mysteriously disappear for a few days, they are a daily presence. Typically there are over thirty of them flitting around the various feeders, sipping water from the birdbaths or up in the trees from morning to mid-afternoon.
But it wasn’t always this way. It took a bit of time and effort to gain their interest and loyalty to the yard. As with all birds that will eat at feeders, you need to provide the food they like in a location and environment that works for them.
When I first started trying to attract American Goldfinches, I put up a tube feeder with nyjer seed it in out in the front yard. Not a goldfinch appeared. I waited patiently and after about a week I tried moving the feeder to a different spot. Same thing. I tried moving it again. And again.
What actually attracted the very first goldfinch to the yard was flowers in my garden. One day I saw a goldfinch nibbling on a zinnia flower. Thrilled, I immediately put up a nyjer-filled sock style feeder on a little sapling tree nearby. These simple fabric feeders are not great for long-term use especially because they do not protect the seed from getting wet and will deteriorate before too long, but they do have the advantage of being light-weight and easy to tie up just about anywhere.
This first goldfinch did come back to the garden and found the nyjer seed sock. Each day additional goldfinches would come too, more each day. I gradually moved a few of these socks like a trail of breadcrumbs across the backyard and around the side of the house to where I had the nyjer-filled tube feeder. Once they finally found the tube feeder and settled in, I could stop using the sock feeders. The goldfinches have been in the yard ever since. I have so many goldfinches in the yard that I now have four of these feeders filled with nyjer.
I have a lot of feeders in my yard. Most are in the back yard and a few more in the front. The nyjer feeders are by themselves in the side yard. I like putting these feeders separate from the rest because it gives these small, less dominant birds an area that is just for them without the competition from larger birds and they seem to like it. There is a maple tree that grows just a few feet from the house on that side, so I have the four feeders lined up along two branches that parallel the house. I can watch them through the windows on that side but the feeders are close enough that even if they get spooked and bump into a window, they won’t have gained enough speed to be seriously hurt.
There is a large brush pile about thirty feet further out in the yard as well as many tall trees in that direction, so there is cover for them when the Cooper’s Hawk swings through the yard. (The Cooper’s Hawk may be the reason for their occasional disappearances. I think they may become scarce for a little while when the hawk gets too busy in the yard.)
Nyjer seed, also sometimes called thistle because it resembles thistle seed which they also like, is a favorite of American Goldfinches. It’s a little sliver of a seed in a thin black shell. A lot of birds are completely uninterested in it, so the American Goldfinches, House Finches and very occasional Purple Finches or Pine Siskins are usually the only birds I’ll see on the nyjer feeders. BUT, in the winter, there will be White-Throated Sparrows, Dark-Eyed Juncos and sometimes Song Sparrows and Fox Sparrows poking around under the nyjer feeders and eating spilled seed off the ground.
One really important caveat about nyjer seed: It has to be fresh. Look for seed that has a shiny black sheen to it. If looks dull grey, it is drying out and the goldfinches will not be impressed. Some of the sparrows might still eat it, but the goldfinches will shun it. Find a good source of fresh nyjer even if it costs a little more and only buy enough at a time to last about a month. For quite awhile, I bought most of my seed in bulk at a local farm supply store EXCEPT for nyjer seed, which I bought in smaller quantities from the local bird store. (I now buy all my seed in bulk at the bird store because the quality is so much better and I go through the seed quickly enough that I can buy it in bulk.) Spending less for dried up seed that the birds won’t eat is a false economy. If you are in the range of American Goldfinches but are struggling to attract them, try switching to fresher seed.
Nyjer seed is tiny and American Goldfinch beaks are not all that big for a finch, so you want to purchase a feeder designed for both. I use four Aspects Quick Clean Nyjer Tube feeders. I’ve used these feeders for years now. They’ve held up beautifully and are easy to clean. They are clear tube feeders with tiny slits for access to the seed. It seems impossible that a bird could get the seed out of the slits but they can and the seed stays clean and dry. Squirrels don’t seem to like nyjer so I’ve never had to baffle these feeders (as long as the only seed in them is nyjer.)
American Goldfinches also like sunflower hearts, especially in the winter when it is cold and in the summer when they are raising a family. I offer sunflower hearts in two Squirrel Buster Plus feeders and in two cage feeders, one a Nuttery Globe feeder and the other a Woodlink cage feeder. The goldfinches will eagerly come to all of these feeders as well as platform feeders if there is either Nyjer or sunflower hearts offered there. They sometimes get pushed out of the Squirrel Buster Plus feeders by larger and more dominant birds, but only have to share the two more protected cage feeders with the House Finches and the occasional Carolina Wren, Carolina Chickadee or Tufted Titmouse, so they usually get plenty of access.
Like all birds, they also need water. I offer a number of birdbaths all year round. In winter, I heat two of them, one with the addition of a birdbath heater and for the other, I swap out the bowl with a heated bowl.
While many backyard birds eat both seeds and insects, American Goldfinches only eat seeds. Cornell Lab of Ornothology’s All About Birds says, “Main types include seeds from composite plants (in the family Asteraceae: sunflowers, thistle, asters, etc.), grasses, and trees such as alder, birch, western red cedar, and elm.” I see goldfinches poking around in the flowers in the summer as well as into cones way up in the pine trees. Don’t just think about seed you can buy to put into a feeder; also think of what you might plant that they will like.
So what is the take-away of this story? Attracting particular bird species to your yard comes down to a combination of factors. For American Goldfinches, you need to be within their geographic range. Then offer food they like and water in a setting that offers them nearby cover to flee from predators. Better yet, put the feeder in a location that reduces the competition with other bird species. Having native plants as an additional food source for them is excellent too and may just be what draws them to your yard in the first place! And sometimes you need a little luck to have a single bird pause in your yard, followed up by quick action on your part to encourage them to stay and bring their friends!
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