Our house's previous owner was a wizard with perennials and it was a thrill our first spring there to watch the yard be transformed by unexpected blossoms. Since I was new to gardening, I didn't recognize which of these plants were really weeds and which were flowers. If I puzzled too long over a particular bud, I usually decided to let it grow and sort things out later. One particular clump of growth was of great interest to me, with its great spiked leaves that grew inches overnight. I suspected it was a weed, but at that point didn't have gardening gloves strong enough to shield me from the spines. So, much to the dismay of my next-door neighbor, it grew. And grew. Eventually, flower heads poked out and turned into brilliant purple flowers. Finally, I recognized the plant. Thistle!
Although I loved the bright cheerful flowers of the thistle (and to think that my neighbor wanted me to pull them!) the real joy came a few days later. Through the open window, I heard a song I hadn't heard before, "per-chick-o-ree." I looked out the window to see brilliant spots of yellow bobbing among the thistles. I ran for my bird book. Goldfinches!
As I found out through pure serendipity, it's easy to attract these colorful birds to your garden.
Goldfinches' favorite seed is thistle. The bonus of using natural thistle is that Goldfinches also use the silky down from the thistle plants for nesting material. Since the down is not available until late in the summer, after the thistles have flowered, they also nest much later in the year than most birds. The cup-shaped nests are woven tightly from plant fibers and are almost completely watertight.
If you prefer not to grow natural thistle, thistle feeders are available which are designed for the goldfinches' own distinctive eating style of swinging themselves upside down to feed. Goldfinch feeders have the perches above the holes, instead of below as most feeders do. Just wait until you see their antics as they swing by their feet to reach the seed below!
Goldfinches also feed on the seed of goldenrod, coreopsis, cosmos, zinnias, dandelions and other weedy plants. They will also eat small insects if their food of choice is not available. Just like many other birds, they are attracted to the large colorful seed heads of sunflower plants. They seem to particularly like Mexican sunflowers, or Tithmonia, which are also enormously attractive to hummingbirds.
Goldfinches, often called Wild Canaries, are attracted to thickets and grasses. The goldfinches in my own yard nest in a tangled growth of wild grapes and forsythia. They tend to avoid treeless areas and thick, dense forest. Treat these gregarious birds well, by providing the basic elements of food, shelter and water and they may decide to stay year-round!
About the Author Margot Gilmore Ziemer is president and founder of Coyote Moon, a spicy gourmet foods business. She is the author of The Carefree Cook's Lighter Side of the Southwest, and three other cookbooks in the Carefree Cook series. In addition, Margot writes three weekly ezines and is content manager for two spicy foods websites. She has developed a passion for gardening, which is almost as great as her passion for cooking spicy foods.