At this time of the year I see increasing numbers of goldfinches visiting my garden. With their red faces, white cheeks and black and gold wings, these endearing little birds used to be popular as cagebirds, a Victorian fashion that put great strain on their population. With the passing of this particular fashion, the goldfinch population recovered only to be hit again in the late 1970s, when changes in farming practices reduced the availability of the weed seeds that were an important food during the winter months. Fortunately, goldfinches are mobile feeders and have been able to move into gardens, initially to feed on weed seeds, but more recently to take sunflower hearts and nyger seed. The increasing use of gardens has been charted through the BTO/CJ Garden BirdWatch, a year-round study of birds using gardens and involving some 17,000 people. The latest results from this project have just been published and show that goldfinches are now reported from just over 50% of gardens, increasing from 23% ten years ago. Researchers believe that the provision of food in gardens has been a major factor in helping the population to recover, highlighting the contribution that we, as individuals, can make by providing suitable food in our gardens.
If you watch goldfinches feeding you will notice that their bills are quite long and thin, something that enables them to extract seeds from plants that are usually unavailable to other species. For example, the goldfinch is the only finch able to extract seeds from teasels, although it is usually only the males that are able to do this because the female bill is slightly shorter than that of the male. The males and females are almost identical in appearance. However, the red on the face extends behind the eye in the male but remains in front of the eye in the female. Young birds are more easily distinguished for, even though they have the same wing and tail markings as the adults, they lack the red, white and black head pattern.
If you don’t have goldfinches using your garden at the moment then you should find that you can attract them by providing hanging feeders with either sunflower hearts or nyger seed. While the sunflower hearts can be provided in a standard seed feeder, you will need to buy a special nyger feeder if you wish to provide this very fine seed. Because the seed is so fine it will ‘pour’ out of a normal feeder like liquid. Although I provided nyger initially, I now just provide sunflower hearts and they seem to do the job. A free leaflet giving more advice about attracting goldfinches is available from the British Trust for Ornithology.