The American goldfinch (Spinus tristis) is an impressive little bird, with its vibrant yellow coat trimmed in black. These birds flit about meadows, woodland edges, and backyards all over North America. You can often see them teetering back and forth on a tall coneflower as they feed. But what are the goldfinches feeding on? Insects or seeds? Both, perhaps?
American goldfinches are granivores. They eat a variety of seeds from trees and annual plants. The birds favor black thistle and other seeds from plants in the Asteraceae family, such as asters and sunflowers. They also forage from elm, birch, alder, and northern white-cedar trees.
It may come as a surprise, but goldfinches are not keen on insects. They will eat various bugs when encountered. However, this usually happens by accident while the birds are foraging for seeds. The American goldfinch almost exclusively eats seeds, with only a few exceptions. Read on to discover more about this bird's unique eating habits!
An American goldfinch eating seeds from a Coneflower
Goldfinches are foragers and find food by hovering around potential food plants to determine which has the most resources. When one is chosen, the bird will perch on the plant and begin collecting and eating seeds from the seed head. Occasionally, goldfinches hang upside down on a tree branch or flower to access hard-to-reach seeds.
Though they are small, it may seem like a difficult task for these birds to perch on flimsy plant stalks. However, the goldfinch is adept at using its feet to hold swaying plants, while they extract seeds.
Once extracted, the bird uses its mandibles to swiftly crack the hull and consume the well-earned morsel. The goldfinch will act this out several times while balancing on the same plant.
Goldfinch looking for food
Goldfinches are daytime feeders. When the birds aren’t nesting, they often forage in groups throughout the day. These flocks will visit meadows, forest edges, and even roadsides - anywhere teeming with thistles and other favored plant species.
American goldfinches will eat the seeds still hanging on to various thistles, asters, sunflowers, and tree species throughout winter. They are even agile enough to extract seeds from small cones.
These birds also love frequenting bird feeders in the colder months. Wildflower and tree seeds may be fewer and farther between, but backyard feeders often offer a reliable food supply in a relatively safe environment.
Goldfinches prefer to travel in large flocks during winter. These groups can number up to nearly 200 individuals and often include other species. The American tree sparrow and the black-capped chickadee are among the birds that will join up with the goldfinch. Flocks of this size offer more safety and also allow the birds to feed more because they spend less time on the lookout.
American Goldfinch in winter, eating seeds
In summer, American goldfinches have a much more varied diet. These birds frequently forage in meadows and other semi-open areas teeming with flowers from the Asteraceae family. They also feast on the buds of elm, birch, alder, and various fruit trees. The seedheads of grasses make common meals as well.
The American goldfinch is also known to eat strips of bark from twigs and maple sap. These occurrences are less frequent, much like the birds' consumption of insects. As previously mentioned, goldfinches do not entertain insects often. When consumed, it is usually during summer while the bird is foraging for seeds.
These birds will continue to forage and feed in groups throughout warmer weather, even while nesting. Unlike winter, though, the flocks will decrease in number and typically do not contain other species.
A male American goldfinch in summer plumage, feasting on seeds of wild sunflowers
Unlike the young of most perching birds, American goldfinch babies do not eat a mix of seeds and insects. Instead, the parents feed them regurgitated seeds.
Both parents participate in feeding their young. However, as the babies get older, the female slowly decreases her role as a food provider. The male takes over most of the responsibility until the fledglings leave the nest, 11-17 days after hatching.
American Goldfinch feeding recently fledged chicks
American goldfinches love thistle seeds, sometimes called nyjer seeds. Thistle is an excellent source of energy for these birds, which is one of the reasons it is provided in seed mixes designed for finches.
These birds also get a lot of nutrients from the seeds of other plants in the Asteraceae family, such as sunflowers, asters, and coneflowers.
American goldfinches eat a plethora of seeds. The majority of their diet consists of seeds extracted from thistles, sunflowers, asters, and the slew of other plants within the Asteraceae family. They also forage for seeds from a variety of grass species and trees, such as birch, elm, alder, and cedar.
American Goldfinch eating thistle seeds
American goldfinches drink water. They do so by scooping the liquid up with their bills, then raising their heads to swallow. These birds will drink from a variety of water sources, including dew collected on plants, birdbaths, shallow ponds, and small streams. In winter, they can also be seen eating snow or drinking snowmelt.
Goldfinch drinking water from a bird bath
Thistles are essential if you hope to attract American goldfinches to your garden. However, many people may not want these prickly plants growing in their yard, especially if they are not native. In this case, you can provide packaged thistle, or nyjer seeds, in bird feeders designed for finches. These seeds are sterilized, so they do not germinate.
Aside from thistle, you can also plant other seed-producing plants, many of which are already garden favorites. These can include a mix of sunflowers, coneflowers, and asters - varieties that produce many beautiful flowers. You can easily find plants that are native to your region as well.
A pair of goldfinches eating Nyjer seed from a bird feeder
American goldfinches are not keen on eating safflower seeds because of their bitter taste. Many backyard birds do not like them.
American goldfinches will eat sunflower seeds. Next to the thistle, sunflowers are one of the birds' favorite food sources. They are drawn to whole black oil sunflower by itself or hulled sunflower seeds in a mix. Growing sunflowers can also attract goldfinches to your garden.
Goldfinches do occasionally eat butterflies and other flying insects. These birds prefer seeds but will occasionally eat insects when the opportunity presents itself. Usually, insects are consumed unintentionally while foraging for seeds during the summer months.
American Goldfinch eating seeds from a feeder
Goldfinches will eat suet. They often enjoy it mixed with peanut butter. Offering suet alongside nyjer and sunflower seeds is a great way to attract these birds to your garden.
Goldfinches will eat shelled peanuts. These can be mixed in with other seeds, such as sunflower and thistle, resulting in an attractive combination for the American goldfinch.
Goldfinches do not intentionally forage or hunt insects. When insects are consumed, it is during the summer breeding season when bugs are prevalent on the plants these birds are collecting and eating seeds from.
Male American goldfinch eating seeds from a sunflower in the wild
Goldfinches do occasionally eat berries and fresh fruits. However, the majority of their diet consists of a variety of plant and tree seeds.
Goldfinches are not known to eat mealworms. These birds are granivores and, thus, enjoy a diet mostly of seeds from various plants. They do occasionally consume flying insects.
Goldfinches do eat sunflower hearts. Sunflower hearts and thistle are star attractions for this bird at feeders.
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