TRAVIS COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — Here’s the Central Texas bird forecast for the month, courtesy of Travis Audubon. Learn more about Central Texas birds and bird-related events for all ages at travisaudubon.org or by calling (512) 300-BIRD. Follow us at www.facebook.com/travisaudubon

Lesser Goldfinches – Foliage and Seedeaters Extraordinaire

These tiny backyard denizens are abundant in some parts of town 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 blooms. If you have White Mistflower, also known as Shrubby Boneset, you might notice that leaves have been stripped so that only the veins remain. Don’t blame it on caterpillars or grasshoppers. The culprits may be chatty Lesser Goldfinches.

They attack Turk’s Cap too, with small groups perching on the tops of leaves while they strip the stamens of the blooms and pick at leaves and buds. The goldfinches are fond of Plateau Goldeneye leaves as well. 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 their expected times. Tolerate chewed plants – don’t reach for chemicals that could kill or weaken the birds that enjoy them.

It’s not unusual to see Lesser Goldfinches land on Autumn Sage or one of the other salvias like Lyre-leaf or Tropical Sage. In this case they are after the seeds.

These goldfinches don’t weigh much, about a 1/3 ounce, so they can balance on some pretty flimsy stems. Sometimes though the stems bend over and give the birds a roller coaster ride before the birds shake the seed heads and pick out the seeds. You might see birds feeding upside down.

Lesser Goldfinches on Plateau Goldeneye – COURTESY: Jane Tillman

Lesser Goldfinches seem to thrive in the heat. Since they have such a seed-intense diet they visit bird baths frequently throughout the day. Do them and other birds a favor and put out lots of clean, shallow water this summer.

Next fall plan to add some of the plants mentioned above (and others in the sunflower family like Texas aster and Maximilian sunflower) to attract them. Native plant nurseries and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center fall plant sale often have these plants available.

Lesser Goldfinch on Turk’s Cap – COURTESY: Jane Tillman

Lesser Goldfinches are primarily vegetarians. A study of the stomach contents of 476 Lesser Goldfinches in California found that 98.3% of their diet is vegetable and 1.7% is animal matter, over the course of a year. Contrast that with the Northern Cardinal whose diet is 71% of vegetable matter and 29% animal matter. Cardinals feed their nestlings insects almost exclusively, similar to 96% of North American songbirds.

What goldfinches feed their young has not been studied, but it is assumed the parents feed them a regurgitated mix of seeds and insects (mostly plant lice).

How do you identify Lesser Goldfinches?

They are small birds, only 4.5 inches with a wingspan of 8 inches. They appear slightly stocky and have a small conical bill.

Adult males have black backs and are bright yellow below, 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 bright or pale yellow below.

The best way to find goldfinches is to listen for their whiny call notes that sound like “tee-yer.” Males sometimes perch in the treetops to sing.

Be aware though that Lesser Goldfinch males mimic other birds’ songs and calls. Here in Austin, two other species they imitate are Eastern Phoebes and House Finches.

While there is no data on how many species of birds they mimic here in Texas, in Colorado 25 species have been tallied. Why Lesser Goldfinches do this is unknown, but it may be that males with larger repertoires are more attractive to females.

A researcher in the mid 1980s noted that Lesser Goldfinches intersperse a lot of Lesser Goldfinch call notes in each song so that other Lesser Goldfinches won’t be duped by all the mimicked songs included.

You can try the free Merlin app from Cornell Lab to get started with photo and sound ID.

Male Lesser Goldfinch – COURTESY: James Giroux

Fun Facts: Lesser Goldfinches in our area may have two broods per year, but by now the second brood should have fledged. They readily visit thistle feeders, but will turn up their bills and ignore seeds that are not fresh.

Adult and fledgling Lesser Goldfinches- COURTESY: Bill Boyd

Where can you find Lesser Goldfinches?

Their diet of seeds changes with the seasons, and gregarious goldfinches move around to take advantage of different plants that are setting seed. Weedy open areas, neighborhoods with open woodland, and “grow zones” along area 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 unmown is welcomed by goldfinches and other seedeating birds.

It’s Swallow Time!

July brings lots of Purple Martins, North America’s largest swallow, to Austin. They form a migratory roost here, gaining weight and strength for their long journey to South America where they will winter.

Volunteers are scouting for the roost’s location, but it’s not clear quite yet. Check Travis Audubon to find out when and where the Purple Martin Parties will be held during July and August.

Upcoming Travis Audubon Events

Check the Travis Audubon events calendar for details on field trips, classes and other events. Beginners are welcome on all field trips. Get outdoors with a knowledgeable leader and learn more about our beautiful Austin-area birds. Most field trips fill quickly, and most require registration.

Austin’s Amazing Purple Martins Talk Yarborough Branch Library, Saturday, July 9, 3:00 – 4:00 p.m.  Free. No registration required. Seating is limited.

Beginning Backyard Birding Class If you’d like to learn more about backyard birds, this class with three virtual meetings and one in-person field trip will get you off to a good start. Begins July 19. Registration is $30 for members and $35 for non-members and is limited to 25 registrants.

Plirding at Blair Woods, July 23, 8:00-10:00 a.m. Help Travis Audubon keep their Blair Woods east side sanctuary free of litter, while keeping your eyes and ears out for birds. Registration required.

Let’s Go Birding Together: Commons Ford July 24, 8:00-10:00 a.m. come learn about birds and birding in this walk that intentionally welcomes the LGBTQ+ community.

Compiled by Travis Audubon Volunteer Jane Tillman