Names reveal a lot about birds' habits

Carduelis tristis, more commonly known as the American goldfinch, has been in the spotlight this summer. Their behavior has provoked some questions. “Why are the goldfinches eating the sunflower seeds and ignoring the thistle?” That was in early summer, and I had been noticing the same thing at our feeders.

I didn’t have an answer but assumed that the high oil content in the black sunflower seeds provided what they wanted prior to raising a family. Would they return to the thistle once they had young in the nest? Young goldfinches are fed entirely on “milk” that is regurgitated and partially digested thistle seed. In mid-June, the birds were gorging on sunflower seeds and mostly ignoring their favorite thistle.

The goldfinch’s genus refers to its appetite for thistle seed. “Carduelis” (Car-dyou-EE-liss) comes from the Latin word “carduus,” or thistle. Even this bird’s nicknames emphasize its seed-eating, thistle-loving appetite. It eats the seeds of beets and lettuce after the plants head out, earning it names such as beet-bird and lettuce-bird. Another nickname is “thistle-bird,” but my favorite is the Pennsylvania Dutch title, distlefink (thistle finch).

If you’ve been feeding goldfinches this summer, you have probably noticed a population boom. Now that the young birds have arrived on the scene, everyone is back to gorging on the black thistle and destroying our bank accounts. A second question arose from this late summer activity at the feeders and involved the large numbers of goldfinches. There was a problem when dozens of young birds encountered some large picture windows.

The birds had discovered newly installed feeders filled with the black thistle, but they weren’t familiar with the neighbor’s windows. The result was tragic. It is hoped that the recommended “bird tape” that was going to be installed broke up the window’s deadly reflection. It was making the birds think they could fly into a sky that wasn’t there. His yard’s large goldfinch population created a question in that reader’s mind. He wanted to know where they were nesting. “Would they nest in the large maple tree in his yard?”

Goldfinches are more commonly associated with open fields and pastures. You think of them nesting in places where the surrounding brushy areas provide good cover. Small trees like the pussy willows are good goldfinch habitat too. After all, one of their other names is “willow finch.” Would a bird that nests in thistle thickets nest in large trees? They have been found nesting in trees up to 30 feet in height. In the southeast, they will nest in 60-foot-tall pine trees. So, yes, they would nest in a large maple tree and in other large trees.

We have dozens of goldfinches coming to our feeders, and there aren’t any fields around us. The yard has some dense thickets but our large broad-leaved maple has been a goldfinch hangout in recent years. Our “wild canary” or “yellow bird” might have been nesting where we didn’t suspect. All of this just proves there is always something more to learn about birds. After all, a close cousin to our state bird is “Carduelis pinus.” Pine siskins nest in the tallest conifers, so why shouldn’t the goldfinch? The two often travel and feed together and the close relationship of the two species is apparent. What’s in a name? Lots.

Write to Joan Carson, PO Box 217, Poulsbo, WA 98370. Include a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply.