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Do Yellow Flowers Attract Goldfinches?

Dear Bird Folks,

I enjoy reading your weekly column and have sent your book to friends in Oklahoma. Now I have my own question. On a trip to Plimouth Plantation, I was told that the Pilgrims added marigold petals to butter to enhance the color. I also remember that Frank Perdue gave his chickens marigold petals. I’ve seen goldfinches eating the petals of sunflowers and yellow cosmos. Did the Pilgrims and Frank Perdue learn from goldfinches? Why this strange choice of colorful food?

– Will, Chatham, MA


Thanks, Will,

Thank you for that very friendly and supportive letter. I’m glad you enjoy our column and sent our book off to your friends in Oklahoma. I like the idea of getting in good with the Okies. However, as nice as your note was, I had a little trouble sorting out your question. I got the goldfinch part okay, but you lost me when you wrote about Frank Perdue and making butter at Plimouth Plantation. I’ve read your note over and over, not only to better understand your question, but I enjoy rereading about how you like our column. That part never gets old. After sorting through your note I believe you are wondering if yellow flowers have a specific appeal to goldfinches. Am I right? I hope so, because I’m not really an expert on the Pilgrims, and I have never been a big fan of Frank Perdue and his bird-eating ways. Next to cats, he’s my least favorite person.

The American Goldfinch is certainly all about the color yellow. It’s hard to imagine a brighter yellow bird than a breeding male goldfinch. His jet-black forehead and wings only make the yellow on the rest of him standout even more. Bird feeder manufacturers often like to play upon the color theme by making finch feeders yellow. But in my experience the color yellow doesn’t seem to help attract more customers and the finches couldn’t care less. The birds are attracted to the food. The color of the package, whether it be a feeder or a flower, doesn’t make a bit of difference.

Goldfinches are seed eating birds. Of course lots of birds, including cardinals, for example, eat lots of seeds. But cardinals will also look for insects, especially during the nesting season. Mom and pop cardinals feed their nestlings bugs. The protein rich insects help the baby birds grow faster. Goldfinches, on the other hand, aren’t into the bug scene at all. They are true seed-o-holics. They wake up in the morning looking for seeds and go to bed dreaming about them. Their kids had better like seeds, too, because that’s all they are going to get. Occasionally, a goldfinch will ingest a bug or two, but that usually is just some insect with tough luck that happened to get in the way.

Because goldfinch parents rarely feed their young birds anything but seeds, they have prevented their families from being victimized by parasitic cowbirds. For those of you who don’t know, the cowbird female lays her eggs in the nests of other birds. She then flies off and lets the host bird feed and clothe her rotten kids, often at the expense of the host bird’s own nestlings. However, if a young cowbird hatches out in goldfinch nest, the joke is on the cowbird. Even though it gets plenty of food, the much larger cowbird chick can’t handle the all-vegetarian diet. As the days pass it is the baby finches that grow big and strong, while the cowbird slowly becomes a member of the compost generation.

The American Goldfinch is an extremely agile bird and has no trouble landing on any flower that will support its massive weight of half an ounce. The acrobatic finches can easily cling to the flower heads and pluck out the seeds. Then, using their perfectly designed beaks, they snap open the shell to extract the food from within. Many people complain to me about the wasted thistle (niger) seed that they see on the ground beneath their feeders. The “wasted” seed is actually the black outer shell of the thistle. Finches only eat what’s inside. The stuff on the ground is nothing but empty shells. And by the way, it wouldn’t kill you to rake that up once in a while.

In your letter you mentioned something about seeing goldfinches eating the petals of sunflowers. I suspect the finches were merely removing the petals in order to gain better access to the seeds. But if you are convinced that the birds were definitely eating the petals, I’m not going to argue. We don’t need to get lawyers involved over petal eating. However, I really doubt if the yellow on the sunflower has any kind of special appeal to these finches. They like seed producing flowers, regardless of the color. Goldfinches spend much of their day eating, so they can’t be fussy about the color of the plant. They feed from a huge variety of plants, including native thistle, dandelions and hemp. Yes, hemp, which may explain why they never seem to stop eating.

Thanks again for that very nice letter, Will. I hope I managed to answer your question. As for the late Frank Perdue, I have to admit that I miss his TV ads but as bird lover, I’m not a bit sad that he too has finally joined the compost generation.