Friday, August 12, 2011

Goldfinches Are Smart

The Mensa society for birds.

I’ve noticed something odd in my yard. I currently have two sunflower seed feeders up, plus a couple dozen ripening sunflower plants that sprouted from dropped seeds. About thirty different bird species come to my feeders, probably a few hundred individuals over the year. But out of all those birds, only the goldfinches have figured out they can get the same food on the sunflowers themselves.

My garden setup: birdfeeders, sunflowers and veggies.

It’s not like I hide the sunflowers. They’re right next to the feeders since they sprouted from seed the birds dropped anyway. It’s not even that the other birds don’t like the plants at all—they’re perfectly happy to sit on them while waiting for space on the feeders. But only the goldfinches sit on the flower heads pulling out seeds. I thought for a while it was a comfort issue—the dangling flowerheads mean the goldfinches have to hang almost upside down or find a nearby leaf to stretch from. But the birds who normally are ok with odd perches, like chickadees and titmice, haven’t bothered either. 

Clever goldfinch!

Earlier this summer I wanted a more diverse food offering so I filled one feeder with nyjer seed (thistle seed), but that wasn’t very popular.  Then I tried a “finch mix” that included nyjer, sunflower chips, and millet.  That didn’t go over well either. Both times only a few goldfinches were interested, plus a sporadic house finch on the seed mix when the sunflower seed feeder ran empty. Mostly the finch feeder emptied when the goldfinches figured out how to pry open the hinged seed windows, so the seed just seeped out onto the ground to rot. This stuff is too expensive to waste like that, so I flipped the seed windows wide open and switched to all sunflower seed.  It took most of the birds several days to realize their favorite food was now available on the second feeder.  Not the goldfinches though, they were perfectly happy to use it right away.

A couple house finches checking out the newly converted feeder.

I know most birds find their food by sight.  So maybe non-goldfinches simply don’t recognize the sunflowers as food sources.  But I would have thought they could watch the goldfinches and follow their lead. Although the female goldfinches are a subtle olive-brown and maybe hard to notice, the males are blazing yellow and black. Why don’t the other birds copy the goldfinches? It’s the same seed they find in the feeders. This is also the second year I’ve grown the sunflowers in pretty much the same spot, so my year-round birds have had plenty of time to get used to them.

The sunflowers themselves aren't exactly shy either.

Are my yard birds just lazybones? There are plenty of other wild sources of food nearby, both in my yard and the larger neighborhood—maple seeds, acorns, coneflowers. I admit sometimes my feeders even go empty for a couple days when I’m busy or out of town, so the birds have to find other food.  But even then only the goldfinches bother with my sunflower plants. It’s very strange. Perhaps the goldfinches are just the smartest bird in my yard.

They sure picked this flower bare!

Sigh. This is what comes from not posting right away.  I started writing this post two days ago, then yesterday afternoon I finally spotted another bird eating the ripe sunflowers: a downy woodpecker.  However, I’m still waiting for the chickadees, nuthatches, and so forth to get their act together. I swear, birds these days!
Downy woodpecker finally catching on.

Today's location: my front yard, Montgomery County, MD.


  1. Ah, but is it lack of brains or just sheer laziness? Sounds like the others are perfectly willing to let YOU serve them, so they don't have to forage for themselves, even if only a few feet away. Maybe the goldfinches are fond of tradition, less willing to be hooked on these newfangled contraptions?

  2. SLW,

    Ha! Good point, my other birds may just be lazy, or even just wily enough to know they didn't *have* to work to get food. I must admit though, a few days after I posted this entry I saw chickadees and titmice finally exploring the sunflower heads. Perhaps they just needed to be publicly shamed! :-)

    Don't get me wrong-- the goldfinches love to come to the feeders too. They were just the first (and for a long time, only) ones to figure out that they could get food nearby while waiting for a spot on the crowded feeders. Birds are so interesting. :-)


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