There’s nothing worse than a vacant goldfinch feeder. After all, they’re supposed to be a sure thing, right? Last year, when my family and I moved from Wisconsin to Missouri, one of the first things to go up in the new backyard, right outside the kitchen window, was a tube feeder filled with nyjer. I wanted those American goldfinches where I could see them. But weeks went by and the feeder was quiet. The nyjer remained untouched.
I knew a big part of the reason was the new habitat. Among yards with more lawn grass than native flowers and shrubs, the area wasn’t a natural fit for goldfinches, which prefer open, weedy fields with shrubby edges. It got me thinking: What if I could lure goldfinches with plants that would make them give my yard a chance?
The Goldfinch Appeal
These birds are like the gregarious neighbors at the block party, the ones everyone wants to talk to. The males’ bright yellow summer plumage, their cheery call and willingness to approach bird feeders—except mine—make them popular backyard guests. And they’re prevalent, too. Their range extends across the U.S. and southern Canada from east to west. In the 2014 Great Backyard Bird Count, the American goldfinch was the sixth-most reported bird.
The goldfinch diet consists almost entirely of seeds. So if you’re growing with goldfinches in mind, seed-producing plants are essential. Their penchant for thistle seeds is well known (more on that later), and they’ll seek out the seeds of plants in the massive Asteraceae (Compositae) family, including sunflower, black-eyed Susan, purple coneflower and aster. They also gravitate toward grasses and weedy plants. Some bird-watchers also swear that yellow flowers attract goldfinches. And while the ornithological jury is out on that assertion, adding goldenrod, yellow zinnias or blanket flowers to the mix can’t hurt, right?
How to Attract Goldfinches: Grow the Right Stuff
To identify a few other plant options, I talked with people who spend a lot of time watching birds—wildlife photographers. In her upstate New York yard, photographer Marie Read tends a native plant garden that’s just for the birds. There she plants towering cutleaf coneflowers (Rudbeckia laciniata) for goldfinches, and also sees the birds on her Joe Pye weed and cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum).
And of course, there’s that thistle. “Thistle is their No. 1 choice—that’s guaranteed,” says another photographer, Dave Maslowski. He and brother Steve have spent five decades shooting wildlife photos, mostly of birds. Not only are thistle seeds attractive to goldfinches, the birds famously use down from mature plants to line their nests. It’s one reason the American goldfinch nests so late in the season, usually between late June and early August. The problem with thistle is that many types are invasive. When planting, look for natives like field thistle (Cirsium discolor), Flogman’s thistle (C. flodmanii) and wavyleaf thistle (C. undulatum), while also checking to assure the variety isn’t a nuisance in your area. (The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s invasive and noxious plant listing at plants.usda.gov is a good resource.)
Thistle isn’t the only material female goldfinches use to line their nests. Milkweed, cattails and dandelion are other options, as are willow catkins and cottonwood fluff. But the birds will use whatever is available, says Robyn Bailey, project director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s NestWatch. (Learn how you can get involved in the project at nestwatch.org.) It’s part of what makes the birds so fascinating: They are incredibly adaptable to their environment.
One plant to eliminate from a goldfinch habitat is burdock. While feeding on the seeds, goldfinches can become entangled in the multiple burrs of this plant and die.
Plant Nesting Sites
Given the goldfinch’s habitat, it should come as no surprise that shrubby is a fair description of their nesting sites. Although goldfinches will nest in taller trees, more typical placement is in a shaded location on a low, dense shrub or tree 3 to 10 feet from the ground, Robyn says. And the birds aren’t specialists. “They’ll use whatever is dominant in their habitats,” Robyn says. “In more swampy areas with tamarack, they’ll use tamarack. In an old field with hawthorn, they’ll use hawthorn.”
More important are the characteristics of the shrubs and trees. “Their nest is very much a cup shape, so if they can get access to a more supported structure they’ll use that,” Robyn says. Goldfinches often build nests in a vertical fork, where three or more branches meet to form the perfect spot for that cup shape. Plants like dogwood, elderberry, buttonbush and hawthorn are common, as are Monterey pine, willow and fruit trees. They’ll even nest in thistle plants that have the right structure, Robyn adds.
For cover before or after nesting season, goldfinches seek out many of those same types of plants, as well as low, dense evergreens, especially in winter.
As a wildlife photographer, Marie has an appreciation for birds that put on a bit of a show, and the American goldfinch fits that description. “They’re very acrobatic,” Marie says. “They won’t just perch on a flower. Goldfinches cling. They will feed upside down.”
Having added the proper plants that attract birds to my backyard, I’m looking forward to seeing some acrobatic shows again. In a fitting conclusion to my lonely-feeder saga, as I was working on this article, I looked out my kitchen window to see a group of goldfinches at the feeder. They were juveniles, or so I assumed from their dull coloring and slightly frenetic behavior. They fluttered around awkwardly, taking turns at the half-empty feeder. I smiled. Now the place felt like home.