What to look out for in July: Neighborhood Sprites
Here’s the bird forecast for Central Texas for the month, courtesy of Travis Audubon. Learn about Central Texas birds and bird-related events for all ages at travisaudubon.org or by calling 512-300-BIRD. Follow us on www.facebook.com/travisaudubon
Lesser Goldfinches – Foliage and Seed Eaters Extraordinaire
These little backyard dwellers are plentiful in some parts of the city where they are active all day long.
This is the time of year when they turn their attention to green leaves and plant buds and flowers. If you have White Mistflower, also known as Shrubby Boneset, you may notice that the leaves have been stripped, leaving only the veins. Don’t blame caterpillars or grasshoppers. The culprits could be talkative little goldfinches.
They also attack Turk’s Cap, with small groups perched on the tips of leaves as they strip the stamens from the flowers and pluck leaves and buds. The goldfinches also love Plateau Goldeneye leaves. Watch these tall perennials shake with the activity of a small flock in a leaf-feeding frenzy.
Interestingly, the plants don’t seem to suffer and will bloom at the expected times. Tolerate chewed plants – don’t reach for chemicals that could kill or weaken the birds that enjoy them.
It is not uncommon to see small goldfinches landing on Autumn Sage or any of the other salvias such as Lyre-leaf or Tropical Sage. In this case, they are looking for the seeds.
These goldfinches don’t weigh much, about 1/3 ounce, so they can balance on some pretty thin stems. Sometimes, however, the stems bend over and give the birds a roller coaster ride before the birds shake the seed heads and extract the seeds. You may see birds eating upside down.
Little goldfinches seem to thrive in the heat. Because they have such a seed-intensive diet, they frequent birdbaths throughout the day. Do them and other birds a favor and provide plenty of clean, shallow water this summer.
Next fall, plan to add some of the plants listed above (and others in the sunflower family like Texas aster and Maximilian sunflower) to attract them. Native plant nurseries and Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s fall plant sales often have these plants available.
Little goldfinches are mainly vegetarians. A study of the stomach contents of 476 small goldfinches in California found that 98.3% of their diet is vegetable and 1.7% animal material, over the course of a year. Compare that to the northern cardinal whose diet is 71% vegetable and 29% animal material. Cardinals feed their nestlings almost exclusively on insects, comparable to 96% of North American songbirds.
What goldfinches feed their young has not been researched, but it is believed that the parents feed them a regurgitated mix of seeds and insects (usually aphids).
How do you recognize little goldfinches?
They are small birds, only 4.5 inches with a wingspan of 8 inches. They appear somewhat stocky and have a small conical bill.
Adult males have a black back and are bright yellow underneath, from their throats to their tails. They have some white in their wings.
Females are a mix of green on their backs, and are either clear or pale yellow below.
The best way to find goldfinches is to listen for their whiny call tones that sound like “tee-yer”. Males sometimes sit in the treetops to sing.
Keep in mind, however, that small goldfinch males mimic the song and call of other birds. Here in Austin, two other species that they imitate are Eastern Phoebes and House Finches.
While there is no data on how many species of birds they mimic here in Texas, 25 species have been counted in Colorado. Why little goldfinches do this is unknown, but it may be that males with a larger repertoire are more attractive to females.
A researcher in the mid-1980s noted that small goldfinches in each number intermingle with many small goldfinches, so that other small goldfinches are not tricked by all the mimicked numbers.
You can try Cornell Lab’s free Merlin app to get started with photo and sound ID.
Fun Facts: Little Goldfinches in our area may have two broods a year, but the second brood should have fledged by now. They readily visit thistle feeders but will raise their bills and ignore seeds that are not fresh.
Where can you find Little Goldfinch?
Their diet of seeds changes with the seasons, and herd goldfinches move around to take advantage of various seed-setting plants. Weedy clearings, areas with open forest, and “growth zones” along surrounding creeks are good places to look. Roy Guerrero and Commons Ford Ranch Metro Parks are popular, especially when native thistles are blooming. The City of Austin’s efforts to leave some park areas uncut has been welcomed by goldfinches and other sowing birds.
It’s swallow time!
July brings many Purple Martins, North America’s largest swallow, to Austin. They are a magnet here and gain weight and strength for their long journey to South America where they will hibernate.
Volunteers are looking for the location of the sleeping place, but it’s not quite clear yet. Check out Travis Audubon to find out where and when the Purple Martin parties are held in July and August.
Upcoming Travis Audubon Events
Check out Travis Audubon’s calendar of events for more information on field trips, classes, and other events. Beginners are welcome on all excursions. Get outside with a knowledgeable leader and learn about our beautiful Austin area birdlife. Most excursions fill up quickly, and most require registration.
Austin’s Amazing Purple Martins Talk Yarborough Branch Library, Saturday, July 9 3:00 PM – 4:00 PM Free. No registration required. Seating is limited.
Getting Started with a Backyard Birding Course If you’re interested in learning more about backyard birding, this course with three virtual meetings and one in-person field trip will get you off to a great start. Starts July 19. Registration costs $30 for members and $35 for non-members and is limited to 25 registrants.
Plirding in Blair Woods, July 23, 8:00 AM-10:00 AM Help Travis Audubon keep their eastern side of Blair Woods sanctuary clear of litter, while keeping your eyes and ears out for birds. Registration required.
Let’s Go Birding Together: Commons Ford July 24, 8:00am-10:00am Learn about birding and birdwatching on this walking tour That intentionally welcomes the LGBTQ+ community.
Curated by Travis Audubon volunteer Jane Tillman