Salad Birds

American goldfinch (photo by Chuck Tague)

15 July 2011

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)

20 thoughts on “Salad Birds

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

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

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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?

  8. Goldfinches are in my Japanese iris looking for something. Have never seen that before. Any insight?

    1. Lonna p, do the irises have something near/in them that would be good for nest-building? Spider webs, perhaps? Goldfinches are nest-building right now (mid-June). Watch what they carry away.

    2. I am currently watching a pair pick at the flower stems of my Sweet Iris (variegated). This is the first year I haven’t had a bird feeder going, so I think they’re looking for replacement food!
      FWIW, I’ve seen American Robins eat Impatien flowers in my garden as well, so the Goldfinches aren’t the only salad eaters!

  9. I have lesser goldfinches in Tucson and they love my morning glory leaves. My plants are only in baskets and they are small so the birds can really decimate them. They ate my sunflower leaves and then the seeds. Those plants were for them anyway.
    I have seen them eat young okra leaves and they will snack on cucumber leaves.
    I feel bad excluding them from the morning glory, perhaps I will get them a chard or kale plant to munch on.

  10. I live in Saskatchewan and have goldfinches all summer. I never knew they liked greens until I saw them eating my beet leaves and even sedum leaves. The house sparrows also like beet leaves. I never heard the term salad bird before. Kinda cute.

  11. I have beets that just came up a couple weeks ago and the new leaves have basically been totally eaten away and yes there does look like triangle shaped chunks taken out. I’ve put down slug and other bug killers but they haven’t worked so I’m thinking some thing like a bird. I haven’t seen any rabbits or deer in my area. I have mainly swallows, sparrows, dove, black birds, and the yellow canary types coming this time year.

    1. I’m thinking that if slugs or insects eat the poison and then they are in turn eaten by a bird, it could easily harm or kill the bird. Please consider taking the poison out of your garden and letting nature strike a balance between “pests” (all pests are likely food for some other species) and predators. Humans using chemicals in their yards and destroying natural habitats are major contributing factors in the shocking decline in animal population numbers and overall biodiversity on Earth.

  12. After doing do much research on goldfinches I am happy to see this article…my swiss chard is pretty well decimated despite using shiny pie plates dangling around it etc
    Thought it was their talons but yes they are eating it and my kale!
    Hope once the seed-heads on thistle etc are ready they will leave it alone
    I don’t mind them at all…will plant more next year!

  13. Last night I noticed a couple of small yellow birds snacking on my lettuce plants, something I had not seen before. I went online this morning, and looked up plant eating birds, and discovered “salad birds!” I love the internet!

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