|Two male lesser goldfinches snack on Nyjer seed as a female approaches. Photo by J.J. Meyer|
The bright yellow plumage of male goldfinches is a sure sign of spring.
American and lesser goldfinches are common backyard birds and year-round residents of California. The easiest way to distinguish these species is that American goldfinches are slightly larger with pink legs, feet and bills. In lesser goldfinches these parts are black and heir bills more stout.
During breeding season, the males of both species sport brilliant yellow plumage topped off by a black cap. The yellow extends over the backs of American goldfinches, but not in the lesser species. And the black cap covers more of the head in lesser goldfinches. The females of both species remain a dull yellow or olive.
Though goldfinches are one of the last species to nest, generally late summer, they are currently displaying courtship behaviors and choosing a mate. Goldfinches fly in a bouncy, undulating pattern, often making their shrill call in flight. Goldfinches generally travel in gregarious flocks, which can be amusing to watch as they fight over a place to perch at feeders. They can also be quite acrobatic often hanging upside down to feed.
Giovanna Pierce said as many as 50 goldfinches have been flocking to her backyard feeders in Huntington Beach recently. “I’ve never had this many,” she said.
“The trick to attracting these birds is to offer fresh Nyjer seed,” she said. “You wouldn’t think that they could tell the difference, but they go crazy for it.”
The seed is often mistakenly referred to as thistle, though it does not come from thistle plants, but rather the African annual herb Guizotia abyssinica, which resembles a small daisy or sunflower. It’s grown in Africa and Asia as birdseed and heat-treated to prevent sprouting before entering the United States. The Wild Bird Feeding Industry trademarked the name Nyjer in 1998.
Nyjer’s high fat content makes it an excellent source of nutrition for wild birds. When fresh, its color is black. When it dries out, it turns a dull gray and has less oil content. Birds often reject feeders with stale seed.
“Goldfinches send out a scout to look for food,” said Diann Tomb, assistant manager of Wild Birds Unlimited in Mission Viejo. “Once they find a good food source, they let the flock know. I used to say they emailed their friends, but now I know they tweet,” she quipped.
“If you haven’t seen them in your yard, it’s probably because you’re not offering the right food,” she said. While their favorite feeder food is Nyjer, they also eat small pieces of shelled sunflower.
The goldfinch’s main natural habitats are weedy fields and floodplains, where plants such as thistles and asters are common. Planting California natives including milkweed and verbena will also attract them to your yard.