Pecking Order

It is not enough to succeed; others must fail.

I often think of that Gore Vidal quote when I watch the behaviour of the goldfinches that feed in my back garden. I have 5 feeders hanging from the walls around the garden, and I keep them topped up. So for the birds that fly into the garden, it is a garden of plenty. And yet, it is not enough. The goldfinches are the worst – they spend as much energy chasing off other birds – particularly other goldfinches – as they do eating. I’ve watched some of the bigger ones administer a sharp peck to the head of another bird when it didn’t move fast enough.

The blue and great tits don’t pay too much attention to them, but the sparrows and chaffinches usually give way when the goldfinches arrive. A pair  of goldfinches laid claim to our garden soon after we moved in at the end of 2011. That pair raised two chicks successfully, and as the summer gave way to autumn last year, the two youngsters would follow their parents around the garden. Now that i leave a lot of food out, there can be up to ten goldfinches quarrelling, chirping and yes, occasionally eating in the garden.

The trick to attracting goldfinches is to leave out niger seed – tiny black seeds that they love like I love sausages. They are also very fond of sunflower seeds (that’s what the two birds above in the picture are fighting over). In fact, they will completely ignore the peanuts, and assorted grains in the other feeders – even when the feeders for the seeds are empty (we’ve had a mild winter, so they can afford to be choosy).  The only thing that they like more than niger or sunflower seeds are dandelion seeds – and when you see a goldfinch balancing on a dandelion picking out the seeds, you realize that their colour scheme is very well evolved for their natural habitat.

It’s strange that they have such a love for food that aren’t naturally available in Ireland – nyjer seeds are grown in Ethiopia and sunflowers didn’t grow in Europe until the Spanish brought them back from the New World in the 16th century.

For all my efforts, nature is still unforgiving. When I went out yesterday morning to refill the feeders, a flash of yellow on the ground caught my eye. It was a dead goldfinch – and not long dead by the look and feel of it. It looks like it had huddled between two stones on the ground  in an attempt to stay warm, but either sickness, an inability to get enough food from the feeders or the frost of the previous night had claimed it. More food for the rest of them.

Photographic Note. I took this picture by setting up a camera on a tripod about a meter or so from the feeder. The camera was fitted with a remote trigger which I could activate from my kitchen. The birds were a bit suspicious at first and the first few times that the shutter clicked, the flew off. But their love of sunflowers overcame their caution and within 15 minutes of setting it up, they completely ignored the noise from the camera. The speed of their movement is amazing – the shutter speed of the image above was 1/1000th of a second and yet there is a good deal of blurring (it is more obvious in the original image).

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