Last Updated on July 18, 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
Attracting American Goldfinches post
Fall American Goldfinches post
An Oddly Colored Goldfinch post
American Goldfinches (All About Birds website)
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16 thoughts on “Goldfinches Dropping Sunflower Seed on Ground”
RE: American Goldfinch and sunflower mush
I have not had a sunflower mush problem.
I put sunflower CHIPS (NOT HEARTS) in a hanging tray (with a wide baffle over it to protect the seeds from the winter elements).
The sunflower chips seem to be small enough for the goldfinch to munch on them easily and I don’t notice them dropping any. if any are dropped from the beak they still remain in the tray. Perhaps only giving chips — instead of the larger hearts –would be helpful.
The screen in the bottom of the tray also keeps the sunflower chips from falling through to the ground. I only fill the tray about 1/2 full — never up to the top — and this has seemed to keep the house sparrows from tossing the chips on the ground when they sweep with their beaks.
I only have about 16 Goldfinch that visit my small back yard (along with other birds). Perhaps the large number of Goldfinch visiting your yard makes the issue a greater problem. The goldfinch in my yard could be making the same mess but at such a smaller it is less noticeable along with the squirrels doing a prompt clean up.
Hoping you find a solution.
That’s a good point. Instead offering chips cut into smaller pieces might result in fewer fallen pieces. I might seek that out to try in one of the feeders to compare. Thanks for the suggestion. : )
Just found this website. I’m in central Maryland (Bmore/Columbia/DC) and just getting started with intentionally welcoming birds to my yard (to augment my kid’s “homeschool” this year) I’d like to source high-quality seed locally rather than, say, ordering from Amazon. Do you know if we have such “mom-and-pop” bird seed places around here?
Yes, absolutely! Do check out Mother Natures in Columbia. Excellent store, high quality seed and great people working there with a deep knowledge of feeding birds. (I have no financial connection to them other than being a very happy customer.)
I had the same problem with a flock of about 30 goldfinches at one point. My flock of goldfinches have now moved on.
I like the idea of a tray feeder with sunflower chips. The tray might stop more of the seed falling to the ground then a finch or tube feeder.
I tried fine sunflower chips when I had more goldfinches. One problem is they really gum up in the rain. I live in Vancouver, Canada where it rains a lot. But this does seem to stop the problem of so much fallen seed.
I tried as well both the Songbird Essentials Seed Hoop and a product called a Seed Saucer. They are like big nets or trays that catch fallen seed. The birds can feed on the platform as well when fallen seed accumulates.
You have to be careful with where you place the platforms. They have a large diameter and a squirrel can jump more easily onto your poles and below your hanging baffles and so reach your feeders. For the seed nets to work best should be placed in such a way that they are baffled from squirrels.
Another problem is the seed catch trays essentially become another feeder that you need to clean from time to time. On the plus side they do seem to catch a lot of seed.
I like your website very much.
It’s a dilemma. I did ask recently about finer sunflower chips at my local bird store and they said they didn’t carry it because it tends to gum up inside tube feeders which matches what you found.
One thought I have mulled over is to try one of Erva’s Starling-Proof Feeders for the sunflower chips because those feeders have a solid bottom but still keep out the birder aggressive birds. (I’ve done reviews of two of their feeders here on my blog.) If birds dropped seed inside the feeder, it would land on the feeder floor inside the cage where it is a little more protected from the wet . . . but it’s possible it would still turn to mush on that floor during wet days. I’m thinking that wouldn’t be fun to clean. And if the floor collected too many sunflower chips, the starlings would hang on the side and be a pain. I have tossed a few sunflower hearts in my hacked Erva bluebird feeder a couple times in the past and it wasn’t a problem, but that was only a little bit and way before the goldfinch flock arrived in force.
So far I am finding that mulch under the feeder does much better than either dirt or paving stone for avoiding the mush issue. I’m not sure if this is because the mulch is more absorbent than dirt or stone and so the seed doesn’t get as soupy wet. Or maybe it is because the seeds show up better on the dark mulch and it gets eaten faster (by birds or squirrels.)
I’m glad you are enjoying the site. I’m happy you are here. Thanks for your comment!
Hi, you are literally describing everything I went through last winter! In the end I got so cross with all the wasted sunflower hearts on the floor that I decided that I had to stop filling the feeders with sunflower hearts which is what was attracting the goldfinches. I couldn’t afford the expensive sunflower hearts for 3/4 of the bag to be thrown on the ground to turn in to mush & it completely ruined a large patch of grass where I had to shovel up the stinking, rotting mush once it got to spring & I was left with bare soil that I then had to purchase grass seed to fill in the big patch. Goldfinches are nice but not nice enough to go through all that expense & inconvenience! Once I stopped putting out the sunflower hearts the finches soon went away-fickle birds!! I was disappointed that the other birds were losing out on the high fat & nutrition of the sunflower hearts, but was relieved to no longer have the mess & it meant the other birds were able to get a turn on the feeders! Over the winter I used a seed mix & suet pellets. It got to summer & I noticed the sparrows were being wasteful with the seed mix, throwing most on the floor, so I changed to sunflower hearts again, great for a few months-until the goldfinches found them again & are now taking over them again & a lot of the sparrows have disappeared as a result! I won’t be using sunflower hearts over winter again. All in all, I am fed up with goldfinches, they cause too many problems! My answer to you is don’t put out sunflower seeds!
Thanks! I do feel your pain with this. It is so frustrating.
Another option if you want to still get the goldfinches is to offer nyjer seed in a separate nyjer feeder. That seed appeals to the goldfinches as well as House Finches, Purple Finches and Pine Siskins. The tiny shells of nyjer can also build up over time under a nyjer feeder so it makes sense to move to a new location around periodically to avoid that. (Of course, if you are still offering the sunflower hearts, they may just eat both as they did in my yard last winter.)
You could also try black oil sunflower seed (in the black shell). Goldfinches have trouble with the shell on that. Downside on that of course is that sunflower shells building up under a feeder can be a problem and can kill your grass.
Check the content of your seed mix. A lot of seed mixes (although not all) include a lot of filler seed that most birds won’t eat. They tend to dump the seed they don’t like on the ground. It’s possible that is what is going on there.
You might also experiment with safflower seed. (Start with a small amount to see how your local birds react.) A lot of birds will eat that, although it can take them time to get used to it, but the goldfinches should leave it alone.
Hi Nancie, but all those options will also bring waste! Instead I offer seeds that the finches won’t eat such as suet pellets & seed mix. I have a shared garden & a neighbour that doesn’t like me feeding the birds, so I have to hang the feeders out of my upstairs windows otherwise they would “go missing” by the neighbour, This means the only option I have is a grassed area under the feeders which the waste from the finches ruins & is far too costly. I would rather just not have the finches as the other birds such as sparrows & blue tits are nowhere near as messy & wasteful!
That makes perfect sense. Every situation is different. It’s like everyone has their own unique bird feeding puzzle to work out. We can share our successes and problems to give each other ideas on what we can do in our own space. Take what helps and leave what doesn’t. : )
While obviously not practical for everyone, the ground beneath my feeders is as clean as a whistle thanks to my 3 chickens. They are allowed to forage for several hours every day and they always make a beeline to my bird feeder area. The girls particularly appreciate the messy Goldfinches!
I love it! Wonderful! Happy song birds and happy chickens.
I am also having a hard time now with the goldfinches about 30 to 40 of them here in New England. I have 3 big hanging feeders that I use in the winter time. 2 of them have 12 perches each on them and the other is a caged in one that I put peanut pieces & sunflower seeds in it. These goldfinches have now controlled all 3 feeders. They have chased away the sparrows, the titmouse, the nuthatchers, the chickadee’s, the purple finch and my small woodpeckers. They will sit there all day long and munch away at the food. I have watched them clean out all 3 big feeders in 1 day leaving no food for the other birds. I recently have 5 bluebirds coming to the feeders and they are now going after the bluebirds and eating the food that I have put out for them. It’s frustrating to see my other birds disapearring because of these goldfinches. I now will only put peanuts & safflower seeds in the feeders which might discourage them. It’s worth a try. Since we have snow and freezing rain the finches have left huge amounts of soggy frozen mess on my grass. They waste so much food. I put up 2 finch feeders but they also left a mess on the ground with that. My other option is to take down all the feeders. I really don’t want to that since it’s winter but my might not have choice to make the goldfinches go away.
I completely understand your frustration. I’ve had finch flocks result in similar problems.
I think your strategy of switching foods is definitely worth trying. I have a bunch of feeders (and a bunch of finches) but the goldfinches are here for the hulled sunflower seed and the nyjer. When it is cold, they seem to prefer the sunflower probably because it has lots of fat for energy, although they still eat nyjer. I put hulled sunflower in my caged feeders and all the finches go for that. But I also have other feeders with only safflower. House Finches will eat safflower but the American Goldfinches don’t. (I don’t think their beaks are up for the hard shell.) The good news is that the titmouses and chickadees will eat safflower and by offering that in a separate feeder, you should get more diversity.
The thing with goldfinches and House finches is that they are flock birds. They love to hang out in a crowd. Twelve perches per feeder will make flock birds really happy. And if you put several of these feeders near each other, the flock is going to be REALLY happy. I don’t know how your feeders are arranged, but if they are close together, you might consider spreading them out a bit if possible. The flock birds will still hang out, but it can sometimes be easier for other birds that like to zip in and out of a feeder if the feeders aren’t close together. It seems to provide more opportunities for them to find an open port because the flock birds will spend at least a little more time in flight between feeders.
Another thought on the mess of uneaten food under a feeder: This is really hard for me, but I force myself to let feeders go temporarily empty when birds have spread a lot of perfectly good seed on the ground. This forces them to go down and eat it on the ground while it is still fresh. (Note: I’m not talking about birds throwing down filler seed that they don’t like, but instead just messy spilling of seed.) This results in less lingering mess. Moving feeders around periodically can also be a good idea to keep spilled shells from building up. Of course, if you have lots of squirrels, they always seem to be up for eating spilled seed. Sigh.
Anyway, good luck!
Commiserations! I have six goldfinches in London UK that do exactly the same thing. Terrible mess, and very costly indeed. I think your theory that they can only take a small bite and are adapted to feeding where the seed is attached to the seed head makes most sense. But it really does look as if they are discarding the seed deliberately rather than accidentally. Blue tits, great tit, blackcap and robin are all very precise with the sunflower hearts, sparrows certainly less prodigal. I’m scratching my head. They are supposed to like Niger seeds, might try those …. But I know other birds don’t eat them
I think almost all feeders have some clean up needs at some point. Even “no mess” mixes can sometimes be messy when birds drop too many of these unshelled seeds on the ground. Nyjer seeds can be messy too unfortunately. They are such tiny little slivers that you wouldn’t think the shells would build up under a feeder but they can. If you don’t clean up the shells periodically, you will likely wind up with a think layer of spent shells. But, I have found that there are other birds, at least here in the US, that will eat nyjer seeds. In my yard that includes quite a few of the sparrows who pick it up off the ground under the nyjer feeders. But most of the other birds don’t show a lot of interest.