Authored by Phil Doerr
With the “Ides of March” safely behind us, our American Goldfinches have really become just that! Or nearly so! Gold! Lotsa Gold! Recall that our Goldfinches performed a complete molt (replaced all their feathers!) in the fall becoming relatively drab, but males are now, in spring, replacing their body feathers with the brilliant yellow breeding colors! If you’ve been keeping an eye on your feeders, the transition is beginning to show in many males.!
This year, late February to early March was warm enough that daffodils, azaleas, trout lilies, and a whole lot of other spring ephemerals were blooming. We’ve had a really warm, early onset of spring, with a pattern of warm fronts added to general climate warming influences. True to form, March then gave us several cool (cold?) systems that slowed the onset of spring.
The birds do require lots of nutritious seeds to accumulate the energy needed for this transition. In some areas this need may explain the persistence of goldfinches at our seed feeders in spring and early summer. Goldfinches are especially fond of thistle seed. In the wild, and at feeders where during winter “finch years”, they may have to battle with large flock of Pine Siskins for access. A “finch year” is when large numbers of siskins, purple finches, and evening grosbeaks move south for the winter due to widespread food crop failures in northern forests. .
Now, in addition to noting that some of our winter feeder visitors (eg, purple finches, dark-eyed juncos) are departing to return to northern breeding locations, we’re seeing other changes.
If we’ve been cultivating our native pollinator gardens (maybe even converting portions of our lawns to wildflower meadows?) we might have seen the Goldfinches hanging onto the dried-out seed heads of the coneflowers left from last season. The important operative here is that we’ve indeed kept all the dried stems of the native wildflowers and “weeds” from last year all through the winter, and until spring “green up”. This undisturbed habitat is crucial to the survival of all our native invertebrates that will feed all the birds and other wildlife that populate our yards and woods. Many of these micro-critters overwinter in hollow stems or the leaf and grass litter in the garden and woodlot edges.
Furthermore, fireflies and native bees overwinter in the litter and first couple inches of ground cover, so it’s important to leave that substrate undisturbed until these critters have emerged, the bees to seek out early blooming plants. Consider leaving your garden cleanup to the very last moment before you cultivate or freshen for the spring. Generally, we should avoid mulching with heavy materials like wood chips, because most invertebrates are unable to burrow in that medium. An undisturbed light natural leaf mulch is best for most native species.
For now, enjoy the goldfinches at your feeders, and watch for migration arrivals and passing birds in your area. Check out https://birdcast.info for migration forecasts and real-time radar tracking of ongoing migration events. Check your yard and nearby wooded areas daily for overnight arrivals. And remember to observe the Lights Out Wake protocols of dousing exterior lighting between 11pm and 6pm so that migrating birds are not confused and crash into buildings or homes.
Thanks for all you do for birds! For the birds! It is the Way!
Authored by Phil Doerr
The Bird of the Year, American Goldfinch, is a frequent visitor to our late winter feeders, which you may have noticed, often sharing the largess with purple finches this year. So, keep the “nockies” handy to check out your finches! Have purple finches joined, or even supplanted the house finches? Your ever reliable goldfinches will most likely “weather” the purple storm and mingle readily with these boisterous groups.
But Wait! Be alert! You may recall, that a worrisome, and potentially dangerous situation can develop among these birds when they mob our feeders. Mycoplasma gallisepticum is a bacterium causing respiratory disease in several bird species, including goldfinches!. Mycoplasmosis is especially prevalent in house finches, presenting as red, swollen and crusty eyes. Birds mobbing feeders may, unfortunately, “share” the disease by rubbing against feeders, where infected birds have fed. In harsh weather there may be significant losses, but many birds do recover infection.
So, what do we do? Mainly we keep alert! Watch your birds feeding, relish their beauty and enjoy their behavioral interactions and displays. Learn the secrets of goldfinch plumage change, because “any minute” some males will begin brightening and incorporating some bright yellow in fresh feathers. This awareness also allows us to detect the appearance of Mycoplasma (or other diseases) in any of our finches so we can react! Once detected there are several things to do:
1-Take the feeders down, and clean thoroughly with disinfectant.
2-Keep feeders down for 2 weeks (but no worries, the birds will return within hours of restarting feeding.
3-Contact Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology at Project Feeder Watch (feederwatch.org) to report the disease and perhaps the join the Lab’s Feeder Watch program and learn about the science of bird feeding.
4-When re-starting your feeder program consider increasing the number of feeders, or spreading them to reduce crowding and hence disease transmission. Consider avoiding tube feeders as there are data suggesting this configuration enhances opportunities for disease transmission as birds rub against the feeder while actually feeding. Table feeders can present similar hazard.
5-Plan to take feeders down once a week or so to thoroughly clean, disinfect, and dry.
6-Keep the area underneath feeders clean and free of waste, hulls, droppings etc.
7-Clean and disinfect any water features/baths regularly.
Now here’s another alert. Do not remove or cut out any of the long dead plant stems from last year’s pollinator gardens, flower beds, or so-called “weeds”, and don’t mess with the ground level detritus! Don’t do it!! -Not until spring is really truly here! This is really important !More next month!
Thanks for checking us out! Keep watching our American Goldfinches and all their winter buds!