Jul 15 2011

Salad Birds

Published by at 7:15 am under Songbirds

American goldfinches have a lot of nicknames: wild canary, yellowbird, thistle bird and salad bird. 

I’d never heard of “salad birds” until Matt Sharp told this story on PABIRDS last month. 

Matt remarked, “My father has a small vegetable garden and for the last couple years around this time of the season, goldfinch, usually in pairs, attack a couple types of leafy greens. The main item is Swiss chard, but they also seem to like beet greens, and to a lesser degree lettuce (romaine or similar with red pigments and not the green varieties like iceberg). He has observed them eating the chard, biting pieces of leaf, but only seen indirect signs of feeding on the lettuce and beet greens (little beak shaped bites around the leaf edge).  So it seems that the birds are definitely eating the plant, and not preying on insects or collecting material.”

Rudy Keller replied, “This behavior is so common that it accounts for one of the Pennsylvania Dutch folk names for goldfinch — the salad bird.”

American goldfinches are vegetarians.  They’re especially fond of seeds but in the spring they’ll also eat buds and strip the bark from terminal shoots.  They’ve been known to eat green algae, maple sap, and as Matt pointed out salad greens.  They rarely eat insects and then only if the insect happens to be in the beakful of food they’re actually seeking.

This food preference protects them from brown-headed cowbirds who lay their eggs in songbird nests.  The cowbird chicks usually dominate the host’s nest and the songbird’s babies die.  But cowbird chicks fail to survive in goldfinch nests.  They starve on the vegetarian diet.

July is nesting time for goldfinches.  While other songbirds have fledglings or even second broods, goldfinches have just begun to nest.  This timing puts their hungry nestlings in synch with maximum seed production in mid to late summer. 

This month you’ll see male goldfinches but not many females.  The ladies are busy incubating, waiting on the nest for their mates to come feed them. 

Perhaps a male goldfinch will visit your vegetable garden to find a treat for his mate. 

It’s salad time!

(photo by Chuck Tague)

10 responses so far

10 Responses to “Salad Birds”

  1. Hermon 15 Jul 2011 at 8:02 am

    They are lovin’ my sunflowers here in Atlanta !

  2. Kristenon 15 Jul 2011 at 2:07 pm

    They aren’t the only ones who love greens! I have a container garden on the deck off my 2nd floor apartment. Sparrows, chickadees and goldfinches regularly snack from my lettuce boxes. I actually have to keep them covered when the greens are small for they will pull out the seedlings. I had sparrows clean out an entire box of basil seedlings in an afternoon once! A few years ago there was one sparrow nesting in the downspout of the house next door. The mother regularly raided my sage plant and took it back to the nest.

  3. Steve-oon 16 Jul 2011 at 12:24 am

    Does this for for Lesser Goldfinches too? That’s what I get at my feeder out here. They are really nice looking birds. Much smaller than House Finches and really neat white and black bands on their wings when folded.

  4. Eileenon 16 Jul 2011 at 5:20 am

    Interesting post and name “salad birds”. I only have cherry tomatoes I wonder if they like them too. I have been seeing more males at my feeders.

  5. Zettaon 12 Aug 2011 at 8:17 am

    Thanks! I always wondered why my Grandmother called them Salad Birds.

  6. Bobon 05 Aug 2014 at 9:00 pm

    Great information that explains why I see them at my beets all the time, next year I’ll plant more just a for them!

  7. Patricia E Dayon 25 Aug 2014 at 10:19 pm

    For the first time, I have goldfinch absolutely delighting in eating the greens on my beets. I have never seen this before and yet have kept a kitchen garden for many years (doesn’t mean they have not done so before. I just didn’t see them).

    Goldfinch are a delight to the senses, and their eating the greens does not bother me one bit. I wanted to mention it here because it is new to me.

    I enjoyed all the above comments. There is always more to learn about gardening and this is a first for me.

  8. arlene valderramaon 05 Jul 2015 at 1:11 pm

    My mom always called the yellow birds that came to our yard salad birds and when I was an adult I asked about salad birds and no one knew what I was talking about. glad to find out that it was a nickname and I am not imagining things.

  9. Robert Vansanton 15 Mar 2017 at 11:39 pm

    We have had our Swiss chard collard greens beet leaves and pepper leaves eaten up buy Birds I’ve noticed a lot of doves and sparrows around my garden. Any idea what birds would be eating my leaves in Las Vegas?

  10. Kate St. Johnon 16 Mar 2017 at 8:27 am

    Robert, I don’t know what birds would eat your plants in Las Vegas but there is a relative of the American goldfinch in your area year round called the Lesser Goldfinch. Here is more information: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Lesser_Goldfinch/id

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