This year, the birds planted themselves a garden.
I have half a dozen bird feeders scattered around our yard. Some hold millet, others contain suet, and a small feeder near the house is full of tiny, black nyjer seeds specifically for the goldfinches and Pine Siskins. But the most popular feeders are the ones full of black oil sunflower seeds.
House Finches, jays, nuthatches and chickadees, magpies, grosbeaks—all are attracted to the sunflower seeds. (So are squirrels, but they only get the spilled seeds on the ground.) While the finches sit contentedly on the feeder, munching away, the jays, nuthatches and chickadees tend to swoop in, grab a seed (or three, in the case of the jays), and hightail it to the relative safety of a convenient branch. There they open the shell and extract the seed before returning to the feeder for their next bite.
Apparently, not all the seeds they grab end up in their crops. As spring warmed into summer, I noticed sunflower plants all over the yard. The biggest concentration was right under the feeders, but even my veggie garden, 50 yards away, had familiar seedlings popping up in the fallow beds.
Since they weren’t interfering with my crops, I let them grow. And grow they did. The volunteers under the feeders fell onto unimproved soil. Sand, in our case. They grew, but very slowly. There was no supplemental irrigation, no fertilizer. They got about a foot tall by the end of the summer, and never bloomed.
The plants in the garden were another story altogether. They had the benefit of 18 years of added compost, plus I watered them. Every week they were taller. Finally, in August, they bloomed.
Now, these aren’t your standard huge sunflowers that are grown as garden ornamentals. Nor are they the fancy cultivars that have been bred in recent years. In fact, they look quite a bit like the wild Black-eyed Susans growing along the roads all over our neighborhood (although those are a different plant). Still, they were a cheerful addition to my rather boring squash, beans, and carrots, and I enjoyed them immensely.
By the beginning of September, the flowers had faded, and the seedheads were beginning to fill. As I wandered into my garden one morning, searching for something to harvest for dinner that night, I noticed there seemed to be quite a bit of activity around the sunflowers. It took a moment for my eyes to focus, and then I realized that yellow-and-black Lesser Goldfinches were busily picking something out of the yellow-and-black sunflowers.
Actually, I’m not even sure they were eating the seeds. The smallest yellow petals appeared to be equally palatable. Or perhaps there were small insects present, although I didn’t see any when I looked later.
If they were eating the barely-matured seeds, the birds preferred them to the readily available nyjer a few yards away, even though they always chose the nyjer over the black oil seeds in the other feeders. I’m guessing that the since seeds weren’t quite ripe, they were therefore easier to open than they would be when they were completely dry and hard.
In any case, I ran back to the house for my camera, then sat quietly for almost an hour, waiting for the goldfinches to get used to my presence. Finally, the flock decided I wasn’t a threat, and they went back to their gleaning.
You can be sure that I’ll be including black oil sunflowers in my garden again next year. If I don’t plant them, the birds surely will.