As Floridians we have a lot of “snowbirds” – and I’m not referring to humans who seasonally come south to enjoy our sunshine. I’m referring to birds that nest to the north and spend the winter with us – such as the American Goldfinch – a bird whose name comes from its favored food and the brilliant yellow and black of a male goldfinch in its breeding finery. Iowans may think of this goldfinch as “their” bird -- they adopted it as Iowa’s state bird because it is ubiquitous in fields and roadsides with tall grasses and thistles, and scattered small trees -- and in backyards where bird-feeders are maintained. It is also known as the “thistle finch” because of its preference for eating the small seeds of thistles. But these birds often spend more time in Florida than they do in Iowa. Here they are consummate consumers of thistle seeds sold in many stores as bird food. These seeds are grown commercially in Asia – but present little potential for adding a prickly invasive plant to your yard: the seeds are heated before shipment to make sure they can’t grow into thistle plants.
The best way to provide thistle seeds to goldfinches is to purchase a special thistle-seed feeder. These feeders have tiny vertical holes through which a goldfinch can deftly remove one seed at a time with its tiny pointed bill. Most other birds are not capable of extracting them. A friend purchased a thistle feeder, thought the holes were too small, and enlarged them with a pocketknife. Don’t do it! Yes, goldfinches got some of the seeds – but most just poured out onto the ground. Those tiny slits are perfect dispensers for a goldfinch.