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Goldfinches of Winter: They're not just summer birds anymore

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Mary Smith, photographer, quilter and president of the Sisters Camera Club, lives about four miles from me, as the goldfinch flies, and each of has had goldfinches on our respective feeders throughout winter. To me, this is somewhat remarkable, as I tend to think of goldfinches as summer residents.

Many people, from Bend to Sisters, have created butterfly and bird habitat by planting bird-friendly plants. My wife, Sue, has modified the sagebrush, rabbit brush, juniper and bunchgrass habitat around our place dramatically with her native butterfly-friendly plantings, and Mary has done likewise. All it takes is heat and water - which reminds me of a framed sign I saw on the rotting floor of an old homesteader's cabin:

"They say all this country needs is heat and water, and our crops will grow... come to think of it, you can say the same thing about hell."

Perhaps it's because of these plantings and their abundant seeds that both American and lesser goldfinches spend winter around here, as Tom Crabtree's five years of Bend Christmas Bird Count (CBC) data showed.

Take a look at the sidebar for the numbers of goldfinches for each year between 2005 and 2010 at the CBC. Wow! I assumed when reading Tom's CBC numbers that they were attributable to feeders in people's backyards. His response to that suggestion abruptly changed my mind:

"No Jim, you can't assume that. Perhaps some of them would be around feeders, but the majority of the Bend count is not around residential areas. The largest flock I have seen was along the river, gleaning food from (alder and willow) catkins. I think when the natural food supply isn't plentiful, they will rely more on feeders, but if the natural supply is good they don't spend much time at feeders."

His viewpoint gives creditability regarding suitable habitat supporting our year-round goldfinches. In light of Tom's comments - and in spite of the high price for so-called "thistle" seed - I'm keeping my feeder full and I'm paying more attention to what is utilizing them. As a result I have seen up to 18 goldfinches at a time, even with the air temperature down to zero Fahrenheit.

Sue and Ren Broomhead of Sisters have feeders up in their backyard and Sue is keeping an eye on her goldfinches. She kindly supplied me with a count on her feeder for the first week in January. On Jan. 2, she had a high of 41, but on the following Friday she had only one.

Steve Shunk, Oregon's official white-headed woodpecker counter, and the person who has been heading the CBC in Sisters, has even more interesting goldfinch data. In the year 2000, his count was 21, but in 2001 it jumped to 102, then back down to four the next year. For 2010, he said, "This year's tally was almost spot-on average" (for the ten years he's been doing the count). You figure it out...

Miriam & Ted Lipsitz of Tumalo had a thistle feeder up fora number ofyears located very near other busy feeders. This past spring, Miriam decided to move it to a location by itself in the front of the house, as they rarely had any goldfinches in the old location. Miriam happily remarked, "Bang, the goldfinches came! Now, I think I might be seeing both Americans and Lessers." Which opens Pandora's box...

I'm not too good at telling which is which with goldfinches, so I asked Tom Crabtree for some help. This was his response, and you can take it to the bank: "Female lesser and Lawrence's goldfinches have a solidly dark tip on the tail, whereas female American goldfinches have white edges on the tail feathers. Lesser goldfinches have yellow instead of white under the tail. The female has an olive rump instead of a pale one."

So, what about these so-called, "thistle" seeds? From what I can gather, talking to a variety of birdseed supply stores, the "thistle seed" you purchase is really guizotia abyssinica - seed from an erect, stout, branched annual herb from the Ethiopian highlands. Its common names include: noog/nug, niger, nyger, nyjer and blackseed. However, in the birdseed business - to confuse the issue - it is referred to as "thistle seed." The Wild Bird Feeding Industry (WBFI) has trademarked the name Nyjer so as not to confuse it with real (undesirable) thistle seed, and to get away from the name Niger, which looks similar to a racial slur.

Several factors keep me filling my thistle-feeders. I think goldfinches need the food from time to time throughout the winter. Also, when summer comes they can get started nesting early, and for the effort and money it takes to keep the feeders full - I get to enjoy those brilliant yellows of summer flitting about all winter.

Goldfinches seen at the Christmas Bird Count between 2005 and 2010.
Lesser Goldfinch:
2005 - 10
2006 - 24
2007 - 9
2008 - 41
2009 - 20
2010 - 28
American Goldfinch
2005 - 77
2006 - 43
2007 - 5
2008 - 68
2009 - 34
2010 - 24

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