When trying to attract finches, it can be feast or famine.  Some days you get bunches and bunches, other times you might feel totally rejected by them.

I recently had a conversation with a colleague who works for the Department of Natural Resources.  He’s a smart guy, a wildlife biologist and what he knows about native swans is incredible, but what he knew or didn’t know about bird feeding was surprising.  We were talking about the high price of seed and that he purchased some finch food and the birds didn’t come.  I asked where he purchased the food from and it was a well known “big box” store.

I told him that the chances were good that the seed was most likely old and finches will not eat it.  Nyjer (also known as Niger and Thistle) is not grown in the US, though it is possible.  Most of it comes from Singapore, Ethiopia and Burma.  Once the seed is six months old after being picked, the finches are less likely to eat it.  Most wild bird types stores like your Wild Birds Unlimited or Wild Birds Centers will work with their seed distributor to get the freshest crop, once that crop reaches a certain age, the distributor will sell it at a discount to places like hardware stores who would prefer to offer cheaper older seed than fresh seed.  That’s one of the reasons wild bird store seed tends to be more expensive (they are purchasing smaller quantities and purchasing the freshest seed possible).

My DNR friend looked at me and said, “You’re kidding? I went to a wild bird store in my neighborhood and that’s exactly what they told me and I thought that was a scam because their finch seed was so much more expensive than the place I purchased it from!”

That store wasn’t feeding him a line, it’s true.  I ran a bird store for eight years.

So it’s best that when you purcase Nyjer/Niger/Thistle that you always purchase small quantities and purchase often.  You can get away with older sunflower but not that tiny finch seed.

You know, if that is too much for you to think about, you can always just use sunflower seeds.  Even those tiny goldfinches will eat it along with other birds–note the American Goldfinch in photobombing the male and female Northern Cardinals?  The separate feeder is nice because it gives the finches their own place to feed without being intimidated or bullied by larger birds.

I also find that birds like Purple Finches prefer it over Nyjer too.  But they are also a beefier finch and less likely to put up with shenanigans from other birds.

Another reason you may not have finches is just plain old seasonal movement.  I’ve been doing three different fall bird surveys.  And the last few weeks have been chock full of birds.  I’ll either be flying over thousands of Canvasbacks or standing in a cornfield surrounded by hoards of native sparrows or whirling flocks of Eastern Bluebirds and American Pipits.  Then this week I did a survey and saw nary a bird.  For most of my point counts I was lucky if I heard a distant American Crow or solitary Horned Lark.  I felt so lonely out in the field.  But birds are booking south and some days you will have a ton and some days you’ll have very little.  If your food is fresh and providing your feeder isn’t filthy dirty like the above feeder with all the goldfinches. Remember birds don’t like eating off of dirty dishes any more than you do but will when they have fewer options.  Dirty feeders can spread disease.

Finches travel around in large nomadic flocks. If you have oodles of finches at your feeder all day long that is most likely several flocks of birds that have your feeding station on their RADAR and include it in their daily route.  So take heart if you are low on birds hope that this year’s Winter Finch Forecast is in your favor you’ll get tons of Pine Siskins.  There are also lots of YouTube finch videos so you can always get your finch fix there too.

Speaking of feeding birds, consider signing up for Project Feeder Watch and using the birds in your yard for winter bird trends.

Written by Birdchick
Sharon Stiteler was given a Peterson Field Guide to Birds when she was seven years old and snapped. She loves birds - it’s just the way she’s wired. Since 1997, she has made it her goal to get paid to go birding. She runs the popular birding blog, Birdchick.com, and has been in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and on NBC Nightly News as well as making regular appearances on Twin Cities’ TV and radio stations. She’s a professional speaker and story-teller and her writing can be found in several publications including WildBird Magazine, Outdoor News, and Birding Business. She wrote the books 1001 Secrets Every Birder Should Know, Disapproving Rabbits and City Birds/Country Birds. When she’s not digiscoping, tweeting or banding birds, she’s a part-time park ranger and award-winning beekeeper.