Bird Watcher's General Store

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Why No Goldfinches?

Dear Bird Folks,

Believe me, I’m not going to ask you “Where are all the birds?” because I have plenty of birds at my feeders. Besides, I don’t want to listen to your lecture about the birds returning when the weather gets bad or whatever. My question is specifically about goldfinches. All summer long finches are waiting in line to get on our thistle feeder, but over the past few months they have been ignoring it. Is there a reason why they aren’t eating thistle this time of year?

– Mark, New London, CT


No lecture Mark,

I don’t lecture anybody. And even if I did, who would listen? Remember, I own a business and have a family. That means that I’m a boss and a father. That makes me a member of two groups that no one ever listens to. Next to yellow traffic lights I am the most ignored thing in town.

Way back when I was a teenager, my girlfriend’s parents had a thistle feeder. There are two monumental things of note here. To begin with, it was the first thistle feeder that I had ever seen in my life. The other item of significance was that I actually had a girlfriend. When I wasn’t busy doing boyfriend things my eyes were fixated on the striking yellow birds eating at the feeder. Day after day, I would arrive at my girlfriend’s house, hand her a heart-shaped box of candy and then slyly take a quick peek at the bird feeder. She never knew. I was pretty smooth back then.

Suddenly one day the yellow birds stopped coming. It was like someone had thrown a switch. The feeder was totally void of birds. It’s probably just as well; by then my boyfriend duties were starting to take on a whole new meaning and my focus was needed elsewhere. I did not see another goldfinch for the entire winter. Then one warm spring day the switch was thrown again and the birds were back. Where did they go? Why did they abandon a perfectly good source of food? I had no clue, but at that stage of my life I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. Today it’s different. Bird feeding information is very important to me. However, the answer to goldfinches’ seasonal disappearance still remains a mystery.

During the spring and summer, goldfinches are drawn to thistle feeders like magnets. Thistle seed flows out of birding and feed stores like butter at a clambake. At our shop alone we sell over 100 bags of thistle every day of the week. Things are good. The bright yellow finches are happy, my customers are happy, I’m happy and my banker is absolutely thrilled. Then fall arrives and the finches show less interest in thistle feeders. Instead of hundreds, we now sell a mere dozen bags of thistle a day. This is not good. My customers aren’t happy, I’m not happy, and my banker is under a suicide watch.

Why the sudden change? Since I don’t know of any studies that totally explain goldfinch feeding changes, I’ll have to make up my own answers, which is what I usually do anyhow. What we know for certain is that in the fall most finches abandon their nesting grounds and head to open fields to chow on the many plants that have gone to seed. It is quite possible that natural weed-seeds are more appealing to the birds than our imported thistle is. Until the natural food supplies are exhausted or covered in snow, the birds have no reason to seek food elsewhere. That’s theory number one.

Here’s another theory, which is theory number two, if you are scoring at home. In the winter I often notice more goldfinches on my sunflower feeder than at my thistle. It’s possible that sunflower seeds have more of what the birds need to survive the bitter cold than the tiny thistle seeds have. Theory number three is migration. We know that many goldfinches, but not all, head south for the winter. We also know that many of those migrating birds are replaced by finches that have come from further north. So we lose a few and we gain a few. But some people may lose more than they gain. That would mean there are fewer finches at feeders because there are simply fewer of them around.

All of these theories, at some level, make sense. But until some person with a clipboard does a complete study, the only thing we know for sure is that many people have fewer finches eating thistle in the winter than they do in the summer. The best thing you can do, Mark, is keep your feeders clean and fresh, and know that at some point the goldfinches will return. Then you’ll be buying and I’ll be selling lots of thistle once again. Yea!

One more thing. If you see a well-dressed man standing on the window ledge of a tall building, don’t be alarmed, that’s just my banker. He’s out there every year at this time.