During his famous voyage to the Galápagos Islands, Charles Darwin noticed that the finches differed markedly from island to island. Each group had uniquely shaped bills that helped them feed on the different foods indigenous to each island. These observations influenced his 1859 book, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life, a work still considered the foundation of evolutionary biology. These days, ornithologists don’t even consider Darwin’s finches on the Galápagos to be true finches, instead classifying them as members of the tanager family (Thraupidae). Still, finches or not, one of my goals in life, as that of many other biologists, is to visit the Galápagos, to see the amazing animals that live there.
Luckily we don’t have to go far to see true finches (family Fringillidae). In my own garden near Lompoc, house finches, lesser goldfinches, and sometimes the larger American goldfinch visit. Last spring, on a wildflower trip to the Carrizo Plain National Monument — a spectacular natural area that must always remain protected — I watched a flock of pretty Lawrence’s goldfinches feeding among the grasses. While most local finch species are not threatened, the Lawrence’s goldfinch, which I’ve also seen in the Santa Ynez Valley, is on the Watch List, which identifies species likely to become endangered.
House finches often nest above my house porch, under the eaves of my barn, and around the old adobe at Arroyo Hondo Preserve, where I work. They make a bit of a mess, but it is worth it. These lovely little birds are here all year long, entertaining me with their cheerful songs. The males can be quite colorful, some having especially bright red and yellowish feathers. The carotenoid pigments in the different fruits they eat determine the intensity of their colors.
The lesser goldfinches seem to be here today and gone tomorrow, magically appearing when the sunflower heads are drying in my garden. During the summer, I have seen fairly large numbers of goldfinches out in the hills, feeding on thistle seed, and drinking from livestock water troughs. Then suddenly they disappear, and we have to wait for another season to see these busy little birds again.
All finches can be attracted to your garden by hanging bird feeders or seed-filled finch socks. Goldfinches especially like the tiny black Ethiopian nyjer seed, found where pet supplies are carried. The imported seeds are sterilized so they will not germinate, but keep your seed fresh if you want to attract birds. Also, a reliable water source is important. They often sip from my dogs’ water dish, and my neighbors have a small recirculating fountain that turned their garden into a bird haven. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service helps ranchers help wildlife through this long drought, including a program for installing special ramps on water troughs to allow birds and small mammals to drink without drowning.
Exotic finches, often kept in cages, have escaped, forming feral flocks around the country. The nutmeg mannikin (aka scaly-breasted munia or spice finch), native to Southern Asia, can be seen around Santa Barbara. Not a true finch, it is from the old-world group the estrildid finches (family Estrildidae) and has recently been added to California’s official list of naturalized birds. It is too soon to know what effect this species might have on native bird populations.
Sally Isaacson, a lifelong educator and naturalist, was formerly director of education at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. She is now the Education/Volunteer Coordinator at the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County’s wonderful Arroyo Hondo Preserve at Gaviota.