Nature is a rich and generous educator. Simply walking though the woods, into a meadow or along a stream stimulates the curious mind. Simple questions arise that lead to knowledge, insight and ever-deeper questions. On the same walk, one can enjoy the calming effects of natural beauty, deepened relationships with friends and family, enduring memories and a little exercise to boot. For some, nature walks are the first steps of a lifelong passionate journey and may even inspire a career.
So with deep gratitude to my early nature teachers (Aunt Edna and my 8th-grade biology teacher that I can only remember by the unfortunate nickname of “Froggie”), I dedicate several columns to questions sent by students of Mrs. Antonucci’s 6th grade class at Somers Middle School.
Edward wants to know, “What birds eat the thistle seed?” while Laura asks more broadly,“What kinds of birds are in Somers?” Jimmy presents another important subject with his question, “What poisonous plants should I be aware of in Westchester?”
Edward, I’ll take your question first. Laura and Jimmy, your questions will each get their own future column.
Many birds are granivores, which means they eat seeds. Of those that enjoy thistle seed, the one I like the most is the bright yellow and black American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis). You may notice these little birds both at thistle feeders and also perched on swaying seed heads of thistle and coneflower plants in sunny fields, roadsides and gardens. When goldfinches eat, they like to hang out in big groups. Once they take off, watch for their gently undulating flight and listen for a call that sounds like, “per-chik-or-ree” or “po-ta-to-chip.” The female goldfinches are not as bright as the summer males and in the winter both are rather olive-yellow. The black wings with white wing bars help you know it is a goldfinch year-round.
Other birds that eat thistle seed include the reddish-brown House Finch and the spunky little black, white and gray Chickadee.
A very good (and fun) way to learn more about birds and even hear their songs is to visit Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology website, www.allaboutbirds.org.