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In this issue: goldfinch nesting, keeping fledglings safe, warm season grasses
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Joining together to break new ground for birds

August 2015

American Goldfinch
American Goldfinch. By Chad Horwedel, via Flickr

Think Nesting Season is Over?
Not For the American Goldfinch

Spotting an acrobatic flash of yellow flitting around your gardens feeding on flowering seed heads or foraging at your bird feeders is common in many North American yards in the summer. Very likely you’ve seen a male American Goldfinch, with its distinctive black cap and his sweetcorn-yellow summer plumage.

 

Unlike some other birds, goldfinches are vegetarian, and more specifically, granivores (seed eaters). Most North American songbirds will feed their offspring insects during nesting season, but not the American Goldfinch. Due to this unique adaptation, they establish nests later in the nesting season, usually late June or early July in the East, when seed-heads are abundant enough to support their nestlings.

 

These birds nest in seed-rich habitat such as shrubby fields, open flood plains, or forest edges. In urban areas they frequent city parks and backyards that provide ideal habitat. See if you can spot their open-cup nests which are approximately three inches across and three to four inches tall. The nest is tightly woven, sometimes sturdy enough to hold water, with the fibers of their favorite seed-producing plants used in the weaving pattern or as a soft lining. Thistles and milkweed have a dual purpose as both a food source and a nesting material.

 

The American Goldfinch’s late nesting season and exclusive seed diet protects their young from brood parasites such as the Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater), which lays its eggs in the nests of other birds. The vegetarian diet is insufficient to properly nourish the voracious appetite of these brood parasites, and they quickly perish, leaving the nest to the original inhabitants. If timed well, and food sources are abundant, females will often leave the first nest to find another mate and lay a second clutch. If successful, chicks from the second nest may fledge in September.

 

American Goldfinches are a true national treasure. Their unique adaptations make them an object of fascination and admiration to backyard gardeners and ornithologists alike. Their vegetarian diets are another reminder of the importance of planting and maintaining native species of flowering plants so we can continue to provide ideal habitat for these late-season nesters. This summer and fall, collect those thistle, sunflower, goldenrod, teasel, and milkweed seeds and establish another healthy patch in your backyard to support next year’s yellow wonders.

 

To Learn More About the American Goldfinch:

Birds of North America, Online

All About Birds

Fledgling Barn Swallows gather the courage to step out into the world.
Photo vie flickr: Lisa Sproat

Keep Fledglings Safe

All across the country fledglings have left the nest and are learning to fly, to find food, and to hide from predators. They can be recognized by their odd plumage, wide beaks, short tails, and generally clumsy and curious behavior. When you see a baby bird exploring its world it is best to watch from a distance and leave it to the care and watchful eyes of its nearby parents. They may be keeping track of several fledglings at once and will soon be looking for that one. If the fledgling is in obvious danger and you can move it to safety, leave it within hearing range of the parent. Leaving the nest and learning to get along in the world is very dangerous for baby birds. Until they learn to fly, they must learn to hide and find food. Planting native shrubs in your yard can provide the necessary habitat for food sources and cover, increasing the fledgling's chances of survival.

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Panicum virgatum.
Photo by Patrick Alexandar, Flickr


Warm Season Grasses for Habitat

It's summer and many of the grasses that may be in your yard or garden are either thrirsting for water or thriving in the heat. Warm season grasses, like Little Bluestem, Big Bluestem, Indiangrass, and Switchgrass do most of their active growing during the warmest and driest times of year. They are perennial, native prairie grasses with low maintenance and minimal water needs. Their seeds provide excellent food and these grasses provide habitat for birds and other wildlife during times of the year when much of the plant life is winding down. Plus, they are beautiful additions to the structural and textural diversity of any garden, yard, or prairie landscaping. Add in a mix of native wildflowers like milkweed, coneflower, rudbeckia, and bee-balm for a spectacular seasonal show of birds and blossoms.

Cool season grasses are often used for sod and can be too dense to provide nesting space for wildlife. Because they are not as drought tolerant, cool season grasses require fertilizing and watering throughout the summer to maintain a healthy appearance. Choosing warm season grasses when planting for wildlife helps to restore a once vast and ecologically important habitat that has been replace by a culture of short green lawns and farm fields.

Male and female American Goldfinches.
Photo by Distant Hills Garden via Flickr

What's Your Favorite American Goldfinch Activity Observed this Season?

Collecting seeds in my garden
Building a nest
Raising nestlings
Exploring native landscape

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The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a membership institution dedicated to interpreting and conserving the earth’s biological diversity through research, education, and citizen science focused on birds. Visit the Cornell Lab’s website at http://www.birds.cornell.edu.

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