Like the Down of a Thistle


Down by our antique barn near the sheep pen there is a big stand of thistle.  We have it all over the property, but the clump growing there is noticeable.  It’s a nice walk down the farm road towards the barn and the old farmer’s cottage.  The way is shaded in spots by old trees, and there’s a small bridge over the pond near the pump house.  When you come up the little rise after the bridge you can see the old farm nicely, and it feels like you are really going back in time.

But what a racket when August comes. goldfinch Thistles draw the goldfinches, and those finches are noisy!  They have a pretty song, as finches tend to.  And when they fly in their loop-de-loop manner they sweetly announce, “potato chip, potato chip”.  That’s what I hear anyway.  You can put in any old words you like to the rythm.  “It’s marmalade, it’s marmalade” works fine, too.

Goldfinches love thistle seed.  You may buy it (and pay a fortune) as “niger” seed.  It’s the same stuff and finches of all kinds dote on it.   The goldfinch times breeding and nesting to the thistle plant.  The bird lines its little nest with the soft thistle down.  The flower blooms in July.  After it is pollinated it begins to look “downy”as it turns to seed.  The final touches can be put on the nest as soon as the thistle down starts to blow around.  So by the second week of August, you can hear the goldfinch fledglings begging to be fed.  They have a sort of flute-like peeping which is rather pleasant, but the urgency of their begging can feel a little stressful and may make you wish you could feed the baby birds yourself.

Around here goldfinches are about the last birds to nest and raise families, and the sound of the young means August to me.  I start thinking about pencil cases and new shoes.  But the finches don’t have to turn serious the way we and the migratory birds do at the end of the summer.  Birds that go south  have to fatten up to make their big trip.   By now in fact, some have already left.  Swallows are gathering on telephone wires in big groups getting prepped to go.  Soon they won’t be swooping over the meadow anymore.  And shorebirds have been on the move since the middle of July.

But the finches are staying right here though they won’t be bright yellow for much longer.  Their color starts to fade to an olive green, and folks will figure they have gone south too.  But they’ll  just be wearing their winter coats.   The shortening of daylight hours triggers the change.  In spring, the lengthening day will cause them to go yellow again.

thistle downThe thistle they love so much is an “alien”.  Like most of our wildflowers, thistle was introduced to the New World accidentally.  The way the story goes, settlers (the lucky ones) brought mattresses with them from home.  The bedding was stuffed with thistle down (native over most of Europe and Asia) and when they  shook it out and changed it for fresh, the thistle seed dispersed and took root.

I believe this story, since there are certain thistles that are today viewed as real trouble- makers.   The thistle is one tough customer.  It can completely colonize a meadow, forcing everything else out.  The seed  stays viable for up to twenty years, and the plant itself spreads underground to depths of up to three feet.   Canada thistle, for example, is a pest to be managed, and although not every species of  thistle is a problem, the Canada Thistle is very troublesome indeed and is now found almost everywhere.

But the finches don’t care a whit.  They tootle happily all day, jumping from plant to plant, eating, nest-making, socializing and generally having a great time.  They remind me of close friends at a party with really, really good food.  It’s  nice to watch their carefree gamboling and listen to their companionable backchat.  With the sheep in the background as counterpoint, it’s a good way to spend a few late-summer moments.  

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker


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7 Responses to “Like the Down of a Thistle”

  1. Ratty Says:

    I’ve been watching goldfinches on my hikes as well. There is a place at one of my nature parks that is just full of them. I’ll have to look and see what plants they’ve been eating.

  2. Bridget Willard Says:

    So the thistle and goldfinch have a symbiotic relationship. How funny.

    I didn’t know birds change color with the seasons.

    Thanks for yet another informative post.

    These are great!


  3. Margie Says:

    I do not know a lot about birds and other than enjoying watching them from time to time I really do not “get into them” but your post above was entertaining and kept me interested to the end. I really enjoyed it. You are a great writer.

  4. Nature Lovers Says:

    Nice and clean content. Nice photography

    Kindly visit mine also

    • hillsteadnatureblog Says:

      Thank you-I will visit right away. Diane

    • hillsteadnatureblog Says:

      Hello! I hope you read this-I have visited your blog and it is lovely. I failed about 10 times to leave a comment. For some reason, your site just wouldn’t accept my “ID”. So sorry, but I will visit again. Regards, Diane

  5. Marcie Says:


    I noticed the incredible amount of thistle this year too – both at Hill-Stead and in the state. In Bloomfield, I saw some on the side of the road that had to be almost as tall as I am and while I was camping this past weekend at Hammonasset State Park, I viewed goldfinches feeding on the thistle growing on the dunes. My boyfriend, his kids and I all stood motionless for a few minutes to watch the finches busying munching away. I was also able to capture an absolutely beautiful image of thistle blossoms on the Hill-Stead property. I will have to share it with you.
    Can’t wait to see how the property changes with the season.


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