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American Goldfinches Dining On Thistle Seeds

A. goldfinch and thistle seed_U1A8258

American Goldfinches are almost exclusively granivorous (consumers of seeds/grains).  Very few insects are consumed by these birds, even when feeding nestlings.  This is highly unusual in that spiders and insects are an essential part of 96% of N.A. terrestrial bird species. At the very least, most seed-eating birds feed their nestlings insects. (Brown-headed Cowbirds lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, leaving the raising of their young up to the host bird. It is rare that a cowbird chick will survive to leave an American Goldfinch nest, probably because it cannot thrive on a diet of virtually all seeds.)

The seeds of plants in the Composite family (sunflowers, thistles, dandelions, etc.) are the preferred food of goldfinches. Thistle seeds, being high in fat and protein, are high on the list. There appears to be a correlation between the late nesting period of goldfinches (late June or early July) and the flowering of thistles.  By the time American Goldfinch eggs have hatched, there is an ample supply of thistle seed for the nestlings.

Now is the time to keep an eye on the seedheads of thistles, dandelions and other composites for the acrobatic seed-plucking antics of American Goldfinches.

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19 responses

  1. Gina

    Such a fun bird to have around!
    Here’s a question, I have tried for years to grow sweet peas and they never flower. This summer I saw buds appearing, and then I watched the pretty yellow dudes and their wives hanging out in the pea row. Were they eating the buds?

    September 7, 2018 at 8:20 am

    • I suppose that it’s possible, but not likely!

      September 7, 2018 at 10:30 am

  2. Stein

    So interesting about the cowbirds. Thanks, Mary.

    September 7, 2018 at 8:23 am

  3. Alice Pratt

    I think many people find thistles to be ‘annoyance plants’….they create a lot of seedlings…but, beside the Goldfinches and many bees, I’ve seen a Monarch and Hummingbirds enjoying the flowers and seeds. It’s easy enough to pull up seedlings, so there are a few Thistles to enjoy.

    September 7, 2018 at 8:28 am

  4. Libby Hillhouse

    Fun entry! I’m also seeing them all over another tall wildflower, what I call nine-o-clock, but think that’s incorrect – very tall, yellow flowers and now a stalk of hard seed pods that the finch rips open in a methodical fashion to get at tiny seeds…seems like a huge expenditure of energy but wow, this little bird is efficient.

    September 7, 2018 at 8:32 am

    • Alice Pratt

      Mary hasn’t answered, yet…do you mean Mullein?

      September 7, 2018 at 6:40 pm

      • Libby

        No, not mullein – yellow flowers with maybe 5 petals growing on thick stalks…very different from mullein….something Jap.Beetles also love and tiny yellow spiders weave webs to catch the beetles. Interesting to see. The seed pods are maybe 1/4 – 1/2″ long and quite woody, with perhaps 6 tiny seeds. Ideas???

        September 7, 2018 at 7:02 pm

    • They’re not Evening Primrose fruits, are they?

      September 8, 2018 at 4:53 pm

      • Libby Hillhouse

        Nothing like the normal garden variety of Eve. Primrose….these stalks are easily 4-5′ tall, the oblong seed pods very woody which lay tightly spaced, flat against the stalk. The black seeds inside are tiny tiny, numbering, as I looked today, in the dozens. The yellow flowers are past and I’m not good at remembering exactly what they look like…..this seems a very common wild flower….?

        September 8, 2018 at 5:24 pm

      • Libby Hillhouse

        That may be the closest suggestion yet….after searching, my books suggest the primrose family, maybe Jussinea decurrens? It doesn’t seem to mind meadow locations, though it’s listed as liking wet places. I hadn’t been aware of such a seed pod on a primrose….I was wrong about the # of seeds in the pod – many, many. What do you think???

        September 9, 2018 at 6:54 pm

  5. Anne

    The goldfinches in my yard eat the petals off the zinnias and echinaceas not just the seeds. Are they looking for something like the pigments?

    September 7, 2018 at 8:33 am

    • While I have heard of this happening, I honestly don’t know what the petals add nutritionally to a goldfinch’s diet, Anne. Very interesting question!

      September 7, 2018 at 10:29 am

  6. Gorgeous shot! Now I understand where and why thistle seeds look the way they do! I guess we don’t get many Goldfinches, because I have bought Thistle and no birds eat it!.☹️

    September 7, 2018 at 9:51 am

  7. I have Echinacea in my garden and even though they’re past their prime, I leave the heads on the plants. I understand the Goldfinches will also eat Echinacea.

    September 7, 2018 at 10:58 am

  8. Bill on the hill

    Not sure I’m familiar with the cowbird Mary. It sounds like they need to be careful on whose nest they decide to commandeer…
    As beautiful as a flowering thistle is to behold, I know first hand how it feels to step on one when barefooted down at the pond! lol…
    Bill Farr…

    September 7, 2018 at 11:44 am

  9. Kathryn

    Mary – do you know if they like teasel? It’s a type of thistle that I wouldn’t mind growing. Thanks.

    September 7, 2018 at 5:48 pm

    • Hi Kathryn,
      Yes, goldfinches do eat teasel seeds, but unless you want a yard full of teasel, I might resist planting them!

      September 8, 2018 at 4:58 pm

  10. susan hunter

    For the very first time, I observed 2 Gold Finches eating tiny catapillers that had infested my hanging petunia plants. They feasted on them for a week!

    September 8, 2018 at 10:01 am

  11. The goldfinches have plucked nearly every seed from my sunflowers, coneflowers, and cosmos and are visiting the stands of woodland sunflowers in the fields and woods. It’s been a good year for them!

    September 8, 2018 at 8:11 pm

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