Last Updated on March 22, 2021 by Nancie
American Goldfinches have been dropping a LOT of sunflower seed on the ground under my feeders. While some dropped seed gets eaten, some goes to waste. And sunflower hearts turn to mush on wet ground, making them an expensive mess. As always, it helps to first watch just what is happening at your feeders and then decide what to do.
Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
Large Goldfinch Flock Takes Over My Feeders
Once American Goldfinches discovered my feeders years ago, they became an almost constant presence in my yard. And this is great! I love goldfinches. But this winter’s flock is over seventy birds strong. Goldfinches are small compared to many other backyard birds, so normally they give way to other birds. But their current large winter numbers give them dominance over most of my feeders. Most are gorging on sunflower hearts while the crowd’s overflow works on nyjer seed over on those feeders.
I currently have sunflower chips in seven feeders: two Squirrel Buster Plus Feeders, a Squirrel Buster Classic and four Woodlink caged tube feeders. In past years, the four caged feeders were dominated by House Finches. While goldfinches slipped in and out of the sunflower feeders too, they didn’t take them over. The goldfinches mostly hung out over on the nyjer feeders. Even with all their bickering amongst themselves, the House Finches never dropped this much seed. Some bits would drop on the ground, but other ground feeding birds and squirrels would quickly tidy up the seed.
Note/Update: The seed I’m using is whole sunflower seed with the shell removed. I tend to call them “hearts” because the hulled seed is not broken into smaller pieces, but the seed bag refers to them as “select chips”. I’ve also seen them labeled as “coarse sunflower chips.” “Medium” and “fine” chips would be smaller pieces.
Sunflower Chips Turn to Mush on the Ground
So where is the problem, right? Who complains about goldfinches? The thing is, these goldfinches pull sunflower chips out of the caged feeders, take a bite and drop the rest on the ground. So typically about a quarter to a third of each seed goes into their bellies and two-thirds to three-quarters drops down below. Winters here in central Maryland tend to be wet with a little snow and a lot of rain and sleet. Sunflower chips on wet ground quickly turn into a thick layer of mush. Even squirrels aren’t enthusiastic about eating that.
And wet seed on the ground can quickly go bad and become unhealthy. How am I supposed to clean up a coat of mush on the ground? You can’t rake it up. Maybe scrape it up with a flat shovel? Yuck!
Why Are Goldfinches Dropping Seed on the Ground?
This problem is not like starlings sweeping seed out of platform and hopper feeders onto the ground to find cracked safflower seed. (I solved that with a layer of plastic or metal mesh in my platform and hopper feeders.) And it is not like birds poking through mixed seed and tossing seeds they don’t like onto the ground. (The solution to that is to offer a single type of seed in each feeder rather than a mix.)
These feeders are filled with only sunflower hearts. Goldfinches are choosing to come to these feeders to eat sunflower. While they do drop whole seeds too, I really don’t think they are being picky. It’s just that they are small birds and so don’t eat an entire sunflower heart at one go. They take a bite and the rest falls to the ground. Short of somehow growing a hand to hold the seed in between bites, it is hard to fault them.
And I do wonder if there is an element in logic to this behavior too. If, as one bird in a large flock, you get a feeder spot and want to keep it, maybe one strategy is to drop some seed down to your flock-mates below?
Short of putting something in the feeders they won’t eat, I don’t think they are going to stop. And yes, sunflower still in the shell doesn’t turn to mush, but sunflower shells make a different kind of mess under a feeder.
Re-Filling Feeders Less Often
For years, I have felt it was important that my bird feeders never go completely empty. That way, birds know my feeders are a reliable food source. I would top off feeders every day to keep them full or close to full. And in winter, I might re-fill some twice if needed. But this year’s massive American Goldfinch flock has changed my thinking on when to re-fill some of my feeders.
With goldfinches in charge of things this year, the four caged Woodlink feeders can be half emptied within an hour or two of being filled, with a large amount of seed on the ground below. Within half a day, they are empty. If I rush out to keep them filled, it just means more seed falls to the ground.
So I’ve tried instead let these feeders go empty and only re-fill them once a day. My thinking is that this encourages the goldfinches to eat the still-fresh seed they’ve dropped before it gets mushy. (Goldfinches are fine with eating seed on the ground as well as from feeders.) On a dry or snowy day, they can mostly keep up with clearing up the seed on the ground. But on a rainy day, we still wind up with mush.
Catching Spilled Seed in Another Feeder Below
Hanging Screens to Catch Seed
Now there are other possible approaches to my dropped seed problem. For example, there are hanging screen trays that can be hung under some types of feeders to catch falling seed. My problem with that is that it pretty much creates an open platform feeder hanging beneath my caged tube feeders. And the whole point of caged feeders is to let smaller birds eat without competition from aggressive mixed “blackbird” flocks that prefer platform feeders. (I do have some platform feeders, but I don’t want to turn my caged feeders into a cage/platform combo.)
Also, it might not solve the wet seed issue as rain and snow could still fall on them. I would just be left with a mush filled screen/tray to clean out. And I’ve also heard that some of these types of catch-all’s can blow in the wind, spreading seed on the ground anyway.
Open Ground Feeders to Catch Seed
I did experiment with putting a pair of Backyard Boys open ground feeders beneath the cage feeder that generates the worst mess. This is similar to a catch-all type arrangement without them being hung, so I knew I probably wouldn’t stick with it. But I had these in the garage so I gave it a try, thinking they might keep some seed off the wet ground. Because their bottoms are dotted with holes for water to run out, the seed does stay a little drier and didn’t turn to mush.
One problem with this approach is that I’ve found that sparrows don’t do well with these particular feeders. They will eat off the ground right next to them, but even though the feeder is just a few inches higher, I don’t usually see most sparrows get into these feeders. I suspect sparrows’ hop-back method of exposing seed would be tricky in a feeder with a floor full of holes.
Watching this for a few days, I find that most goldfinches weren’t getting into them to eat the random bits either. The leftovers were eaten by squirrels. And some seed still fell on the ground to surround the ground feeders with mush. Sigh.
Drier Surfaces Under Feeders
My next thought was to consider the surface under the feeders. Seed on the ground gets wet from snow and rain falling from the sky of course, but also because it lands on wet ground. So maybe there is a way to keep the ground beneath the feeder a little drier?
I usually mulch under the feeders each spring, but over time, with hundreds of little bird feet under my feeders, that area is wet dirt by this time of year. I still had an extra bag of leftover hardwood mulch. So I decided to try spreading it under one feeder to see if the seed does a little better on this surface. The mulch bag had sat outside for months, so the mulch was wet to start, but even so, the seed that has fallen on it over the past week is doing better. Even after several rainy days, the mulched area under the feeder has a sprinkling of individual seeds but no mush. This simple step seems to have solved my mush problem.
Note: I do have a paving stone under one of these feeders. The sunflower seed that falls on the paving still turns to mush. I suspect this might depend on the paving stone material and/or whether water puddles on the pavement or runs off.
Have You Had Sunflower Seed Mush Problems?
Have you run into this particular problem of sunflower hearts + goldfinches = mush? Your suggestions or insights or commiserations would be (as always) most welcome in the comments below.
If your issue is instead goldfinches dropping nyjer seed, check out my post on Mess Under Nyjer Feeders.
Learn More About American Goldfinches
American Goldfinches (All About Birds website)
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