Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

July 9, 2008

It’s Thistle Bird Time

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:31 pm

  The Canada Thistle is considered a noxious weed by most humans. It is, after all, one of those alien imports that out-competes our native plants and tends to take over whenever it shows up in the neighborhood. Technically, however, there is no such thing as a “weed.”  There is no weed family in the plant world.  Thistles happen to be in  the Composite family alongside such benign entities as sunflowers, daisies and goldenrods. “Weed” is an un-official term that simply refers to plants growing where we don’t want them to. It is a purely subjective, and very human, label. 

  Actually, it is a bit unfair to call this plant the Canada Thistle in the first place. I mean, they are from Europe, not Canada, and Canadians are nice people, eh. Also, keep in mind that badmouthing thistles might raise the ire of your neighborhood Scotsman. Canada Thistles are not Scottish Bull Thistles, but close enough to be considered part of the clan.  Given that there are a lots of Scots in Canada, we best be careful aboot what we’re say’n here.        

  But, national pride matters aside, the purple flowered plants are not on everyone’s “bad” list. Goldfinches, for instance, are not bound by human labels. These black and yellow sprites do not divide thistles into “good” and “bad” categories – to them all thistles are good. The Canada Thistles are going to seed now (see here) and the birds are in their now in their glory time.

  You’ve got to understand that these finches don’t just love thistles, they live for thistles. Considering that they eat the seeds and line their nests with their silky fibers, it is no surprise that they are better known as thistle birds.  I’m sure that one day we’ll discover that goldfinches even dream about thistles (they probably have walking dreams too). To top it all off, they even put off having kids until the thistles go to seed.  Yes, Goldfinches wait until the thistle crop reaches maturity in mid summer before they even think about nesting.  Most other birds have completed one nesting cycle and are well into their second brood by now. 

  Over the last few days, I’ve had a chance to watch a few goldfinches do their thing. They are a skittish lot and even when engrossed in “thistleing” are difficult to approach. I was able to snap a few pictures before being discovered. This individual (see above) is a fine looking male caught in the moment that he realized he was being watched.  When alarmed or alerted, the birds often erect the black part of their crown like a tiny crest, and this one was off in a flash after the shot was taken. His female, should he have one yet, would be much more subtle in coloration – being greenish in order to better blend in to her surroundings.

  I came upon another male finch still in the throws of thistle picking (see here). Thistle seeds are each attached to a cone of silk which looks very much like a badminton birdie. The rice-sized seeds are attached at to a core (just like the arrangement found on another “weed,” the dandelion). The real birdies dive into the fluff in order to detach the seed from the core and nip off the fluff part of the imitation birdie. This extra fluff floats away from the feeding bird like a string of soft summer clouds.

  Goldfinches emit a series of wandering “tee tee tee” notes as they bounce from seed head to seed head like kids in a candy store. “Thistle do it for now” is a possible human translation of that call.

1 Comment »

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    Comment by Antonina Tanequodle — June 22, 2012 @ 3:10 pm

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