Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Summer, Part Two

American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis)

By the time August rolls around, way too many people are saying summer is almost over. They're so wrong. We're just beginning late summer, a glorious time that lasts into most of September. After that, in New England, we look forward to Indian Summer.

American Goldfinches are prime players in what I like to call, "Summer, Part Two." These late breeders often wait until July to build their nests and lay between two to seven eggs. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, "American Goldfinches are the only finch that molts its body feathers twice a year, once in late winter and again in late summer. Frequent molting is both time-consuming and physiologically taxing for the birds. Some scientists suggest this may be the reason goldfinches breed so late in the season — rarely beginning in earnest until mid-July. Another possibility is that the birds wait to nest until thistle, milkweed and other plants have produced fibrous seeds, which goldfinches not only eat but also use to build their nests."

I feed goldfinches year round and I'm vigilant about keeping seed available. Thistle seed is what they love and using a thistle sock seems to work best, even in winter. It’s easy for them to cling to and they love feeding upside down. But, if you really want to attract goldfinches to your yard, be advised that feeding thistle is not enough. You need to provide a reliable source of water, good cover, plants and habitat for nesting.

Cornell says goldfinches are among the strictest vegetarians in the bird world, selecting an entirely vegetable diet and only inadvertently swallowing an occasional insect. A variety of seeds is best, so plant perennials that provide seed, such as anise hyssop, asters and sunflowers. And when your perennials and annuals go to seed in the fall, resist the urge to cut them down to the ground. Leave the stems and seed heads standing — they provide a good source of nourishment for goldfinches and other birds into winter. Also, birds love to forage in the garden, scratching and looking for seeds, so tidier, in this case, is NOT better.


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