Gardening for Birds: Gardening for American Goldfinches

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A beautiful american goldfinch on a tree branch in winter.

Photo Jean Carr

Author: Julianne Labreche, Master Gardeners of Ottawa-Carleton; published with permission

One pleasure every summer is watching American goldfinches forage for seeds among the flowers and grasses of my front-yard pollinator garden. These beautiful little birds, only about 10 cm in length, are attracted to many of the same plants as butterflies. According to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “Goldfinches are among the strictest vegetarians in the bird world, selecting an entirely vegetable diet and only inadvertently swallowing an occasional insect.”

These songbirds are frequent visitors to my garden, situated in a well-treed Ottawa neighbourhood, and are always welcome. In spring, males molt their brownish winter plumage and are transformed, with bright yellow back and breast and black wing and forehead feathers designed to attract a mate. The female is drab grey during the winter months and olive brown and yellow in the breeding season.

Food for American Goldfinches

American goldfinches come to the feeder in winter and summer to consume hulled sunflower seeds and niger seeds. Care needs to be taken,however,r to keep the feeders clean and avoid contamination. Especially during a spell of hot, humid weather, seed can become rancid and potentially harm the birds.

In my garden, I tend to focus on fresh water and plants to attract these birds. They are not particularly fussy eaters and will consume native and nonnative seed from many different flowers, weeds, and grasses, including thistle, goatsbeard, dandelions, zinnias, poppies, marigolds, sunflowers, and native grasses. They are daily visitors at the bird bath.

Plants which Attract American Goldfinches

To attract goldfinches to the garden, you can grow these native plants:

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

Swamp Milkweed is a tall, showy native milkweed with small rose-purple flowers attracts many insects, birds, and butterflies. It grows in the full sun. Although it prefers moist, well-drained soil, it will tolerate drier conditions and grow in clay, loam, or organic soil. American goldfinches sometimes use the plant as nesting material.

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

Black-eyed Susan is a late-blooming plant that flowers in late summer and fall and is a favourite for gardeners and birds. It prefers full sun and is easy to grow, tolerating clay, loam, sand, or coarse soil. Its small seeds and nectar attract many songbirds.

Pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida)

This is a tough plant that tolerates drought, humidity, heat, and poor soil. It prefers the full sun. Clumps should be divided when they become overcrowded, roughly every four years. This ornamental plant provides nectar and small seeds for birds.

Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)

This native grass turns a striking red in the fall with white seed stalks. It grows in full sun to medium shade and prefers well-drained, dry, medium soil. It is easy to grow and requires minimal care. Small birds enjoy its seeds

Tip about Healthy Soils

Healthy soil does more than just maintain plants. It supports biodiversity in the garden, including grubs, worms, and the larvae of many insects, including ones that birds feed upon. You can improve your soil by adding compost to it regularly. Never add pesticides or chemicals to your garden that may harm beneficial insects, including pollinators and insects that many birds require to
feed their young.

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