With their amazing agility and sharp, pointed bills, goldfinches specialise on the tiny seeds of tall herbaceous plants, particularly the thistle family. These grow in scattered clumps, and don’t provide enough food for a whole season, so goldfinches have to be very mobile and observant. Breeding pairs and, in winter, small flocks appropriately called ‘charms’, search over a wide area for any patches of thistles, teasels and other ‘weeds’. Few gardeners have the space for large thistles, but teasels are attractive, interesting and easy to grow. Although as biennials they do not produce seed until their second year. Roving goldfinches will spot any ripening teasels in your garden and pop down to check them out. They will also investigate other food sources nearby; if this happens to include feeders offering modern, thin-skinned black sunflower seed or sunflower hearts, they will readily adopt them. Their beaks are not strong enough to shell old-fashioned striped sunflower seeds.
Niger seed is also a good attractant; even when larger birds are monopolising the sunflower feeders, sharp-beaked goldfinches can exploit these tiny, rich seeds. Special niger seed feeders are also available from most garden centres.
If you cannot wait for your own teasel to grow, simply acquire some dry stems (with the landowner’s permission, of course) in late summer. Stick these in a plant pot (filled with pebbles, gravel, etc.) and if goldfinches are in the area, they will spot them. It’s fun and easy to repeatedly re-fill the teasel heads with niger seed. Just use a teaspoon or cut a corner off the bag and sprinkle, most of it will stay in the spikey teasel ‘brushes’ for the goldfinches to find on their next visit, and dunnocks will appreciate any on the ground.
Picture by Don Cuddon