Animals,  Birding,  Gardening adventures,  Vegetables

Finches Eat Sunflower Leaves

Are your sunflowers being stripped?  Are the leaves acquiring non-snail-like holes and then disappearing altogether?  You may be feeding the birds, but not with the seeds!


Lesser goldfinches apparently are nuts over sunflower leaves.  They will tear little bits of the leaves off and injest them, and within a day or so there will be nothing but a stem and a flower.

If your goal is to feed the birds, then this is okay.  If you have bird problems on your vegetables such as peppers, then you may want to plant sunflowers off to the side to distract them.

Why  do they eat sunflower leaves?  They must like a little salad with their seeds, and sunflowers are particularly yummy for them.  In searching the Internet for suggestions as to why they like sunflower leaves so much, there were many postings about the incidents, and yet most respondents insisted that the birds were after bugs on the leaves, or that snails came in the night and ate the leaves!

This occurrence seems to happen mostly in California, and other than bird nets (which one person said that the lesser goldfinches chewed through!) or planting sunflowers thickly (one for them, one for you), you may as well just enjoy the show.  Ours come up from dropped or buried birdseed, and when the plants are growing their flowers, suddenly they are beset by birds who skeletonize the plant.  We’re okay with that; it saves a little cost on the very expensive Niger thistle seed! (Oh, and by the way, Niger thistle isn’t thistle seed at all).



  • Diane

    Jay, that is hilarious. Good for you for preserving the plants so that there will be more for the finches to eat later. I don’t understand people who plant sunflowers to feed the seeds to the birds, but want to chase off the finches that will eat the leaves! Its amazing how those little finchy devils will eat, too. They love the seeds from prickly lettuce and thistle, too, so we allow regular lettuce and artichokes to go to seed so they can feast. Thanks so much for your comment, and good luck with opening day for the salad bar!

  • Jay775

    I live in Reno, NV, and I battle these these cute little buggers every year. A sunflower that sprouts from the ground doesn’t last a day in my yard thanks to the yellow finch. I planted 20+ pre-sprouted plants one weekend in the morning last summer. By noon, I was down to just 2 that still had leaves. They had eaten nearly all of them. My garden wasn’t going out like that, so I replanted and put up bird net everywhere. Did I get an earful from the finch. They didn’t approve. But it was in their best interest. As soon as the plants were 4′ tall, I removed the bird net and let them have at them. It was a birdy buffet. The plants were established enough to take the onslaught of their ravenous appetites. Every year they start showing up in early may to check my garden out. I swear I saw one of them the other day carrying a little bottle of ranch dressing. Sorry guys, come back in July.

  • Diane

    Kathy, yes, but think of the birds that now have good nutrition to help them on their very long migration! Good to hear from Arkansas. Thanks for reading!

  • kathy

    I live in Arkansas and two goldfinches have decimated my sunflowers. I read online that they go through Arkansas in the winter on the way to Mexico. This is late for them according to that information. Anyway my sunflowers are nothing now.

  • Ted Proctor

    A little late in the season but a distracting device, such as tinsel, aluminum pie plates, or old shrub tags hanging so they flap in the breeze (my method) slows down browsing by my goldfinches. The method (also sold commercially as “flying saucers, ‘scarecrow ribbon”) has a drawback in needing a breeze for effect- in abundance in Prescott AZ. It still beats hanging around and waving my arms. In NJ, the local goldfinches did not noticeably attack my Jerusalem Artichokes, but with little or no harm to those sunflowers and fewer goldfinches in my old neighborhood, I wasn’t looking so close. I’m interested if the American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) engages in this behavior as the Lesser Goldfinch (S. psaltria) so readily does, to my surprise since moving west.
    Wait till next year, two options: many more sunflowers (there is some space for this), some alternate as showy and upright.

  • Diane

    Hi Cary,
    what area are you in? We’re trying to identify the type of moth you have. Do you have a photo or description? On the plus side of your situation,you have habitat for moths which is important, and the moths and caterpillars themselves are food for birds. You also have great landing sites for birds who love tall stalks. On the negative side you are looking at stripped stalks. Once the caterpillars have fed, the sunflowers might come back, so don’t give up on them yet. If they set seeds and have no leaves for a long time, the seed shells might form without a viable nut inside because there isn’t enough sugar for them. I don’t know how far along your sunflowers are, if they’ve already flowered or not. I’d give them a chance to come back. Lots of tiny insects love sunflower stalks as well, which are all excellent food sources for small birds, so although not pretty they are still helping the wildlife.

  • Cary

    My sunflowers have been skeletonized by a caterpillar – I think the name is golden tiger. My question is will the flowers stop developing seeds since they have no leaves, or is the process already in place and the seeds will still form? I let the flowers grow as shade cover at the bird feeder for the ground feeders, so I am disappointed they are just ugly barren stalks now. I will cut them if no seeds can be expected.

  • Diane

    Hi Jean,
    the lesser goldfinches have beaks for smaller seeds. They populate feeders filled with thistle, and you can see them hanging on weeds that produce tiny seeds, often those coated in fluff waiting for wind to spread them. Allowing vegetables such as lettuce go to seed allows them food as well. Goldfinches aren’t the only birds that eat greens, but they are the right size to be supported by sunflowers. Thanks for reading, and thanks for commenting! Diane

  • Jean

    Saw a little, very active bird just now eating my sunflower leaves, and couldn’t believe my eyes. So relieved to find your articles about the Lesser Goldfinches and the fact that they eat sunflower leaves. My sunflower seeds are not quite ripe yet. Do the Lesser Goldfinches eat the seeds as well when they are ready?

    Thank you. Jean

  • Miranda

    Hmm, I haven’t been keeping up with the Lab’s newer programs. I did Project FeederWatch for a number of years, but we stopped putting up feeders and started planting plants, so it wasn’t really relevant anymore. Ooo, YardMap does look like it has some potential in that sort of vein. Definitely merits investigation! Thanks for linking me up: I’m a big proponent of citizen science and am always looking for things I can do myself or that I can recommend to others. Much appreciated!

  • Sherri Gerlach

    Miranda, I wonder if Cornell Lab of Ornithology might have ways for us to give this kind of input via one of their citizen science projects. YardMap looks particularly interesting for the permie bird lovers in us :).

    Cheers to you too, and many thanks to Diane and you for the wonderful blog. Thank you for all of your work to make a place for nature to thrive in.

  • Miranda

    Cheers, Sherri! It has been surprising to me how little documentation there appears to be on this behavior. Reinforces the fact that we actually know startlingly little about even our common species! Part of what makes the IUCN listing process for threatened species so difficult, by the by: it demands information, such as size and description of critical habitat for a species, which we simply may not have — and sometimes can’t get, because the species population is small and displaced due habitat loss, so we can’t go out and assess it. A rather grim catch 22, that.
    As a scientist, I really wish I knew a place to make observational data reports like this sunflower-eating, to put such behavior record somewhere centralized! Ah, well.

    There is something particularly charming about the goldfinch — it’s neat round nest, tucked away and visited on the sly by modest but tastefully attired parents, “Be-weeeuo”-ing away as they dash off to hunt up some more food for their squeaky young. A very dear part of Spring to me as well!

    Thanks so much for reading and for sharing! We’re making our own log, I guess. 😀

  • Sherri Gerlach

    Miranda, thank you for your excellent input. Very helpful. Here in Mesa, AZ where I feed the Lessers with nyjer year ’round, and see the sunflowers denuded during the warm months, I’ve been asking around and thought I was the only person to have seen this happen. We have a baker’s dozen of the little guys that live here a good bit of the year and I love them. Their familiar calls, unabashed behavior, and yearly babies are some of the many things that make the yard home to us all.

    Jimmy, I hear you, man. It’s frustrating because if they could just not eat ALL the leaves then they could have a greater abundance later when the plant grows. I’ve only overcome this by planting many plants and, as Miranda suggests, sprinkling them between other plants in the garden. They still get eaten, but at a rate that doesn’t kill the plants.

  • Miranda

    Hi Jimmy — thanks for reading! As the resident bird nerd, I’m fielding this question for Diane.

    Firstly, the goldfinches are after something different from both the Niger seeds and the sunflower leaves. This is breeding season, when many kinds of birds expand their diets to meet the nutritional demands of maintaining breeding plumage, high-exertion breeding behaviors (defending territories, displays, nest-building, etc.), growing and laying eggs (females), and providing sufficient diets to fast-growing young. Lesser Goldfinches are primarily granivorous, but in the Spring they branch (heh) out into newly emerged buds, flowers and leaves of some plants. Seeds, especially your Niger, provide protein (essential to feather growth of young and adults) and fatty oils. New plant growth, like buds and tender leaves, is rich in essential vitamins and minerals that support body growth and function during this physiologically taxing season.

    Lesser Goldfinches also have a particular affinity with Asteraceae plants in their diet: thistle seed and seeds from other aster plants make up a significant part of their diet, so it makes sense they would be particularly fond of greens from plants of this family (sunflower = genus Helianthus = family Asteraceae). The cultivated sunflower is perfect for them because even large leaves remain tender and easy to eat.

    With our extensive development, we’ve taken away native food sources and sometimes replaced them with a small, concentrated amount of succulent substitutes. Your lovely feeder birds need that green food in their diet, and you’ve kindly provided it just as you did the Niger. The sensible solution and the permaculture solution is trifold:
    – Disperse and integrate: you probably have a bunch of sunflowers growing close to each other in one area? Well, spread them out, plant them between other plants. They will be harder to find this way.
    – Quantity: wildlife will always take a portion of what we grow, because they HAVE to: we’ve limited their available resources so much, they MUST opportunistically take advantage of the buffets we set out. So increase the quantity of sunflower plants you grow to create that 10% of surplus that you can and do return to nature (part of the 3 ethics of permaculture)
    – Re-substitute: damage to your crop will be reduced not only by growing a greater quantity of the predated food, but also if you grow a greater DIVERSITY. With more options, the birds have a greater chance of meeting their nutritional requirements before they completely defoliate your sunflowers. Plant organically-grown native plants that can provide food for the goldfinches; here is a nice little chart put together by Las Pilitas Nursery of California natives for wildlife: Use CNTL+F and type in “Lesser” to search the chart for plants used by Lesser Goldfinches. Alders are definitely used as a buds and greens source, and there are native sunflowers (Helianthus). Native plants will provide better food for the goldfinches, help relieve your bird food bill, and provide resources for many other birds and other native wildlife. You can also add in other non-native Asteraceaes that you might like to boost the diversity: Jerusalem Artichokes are in the same genus as black oil sunflowers and produce a tasty root crop for humans. Our Lesser Goldfinches had a little nibble on our Jerusalem Artichoke leaves last summer, so I know they’ll go for it.

    Helianthus sp. leaves have been found to have anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties and the plants have been used in human medicine for a long time. The goldfinches may have evolved to favor greens from this genus for some internal support (all illness involves inflammation) over time. I don’t know and doubt if anybody else does at this point; you may simply be sure that this predation is not random persecution by the goldfinches to spite you even though you provide them with seed. With wild animals, choices that do not have a purpose can quickly lead to mortalities, so even experimentation is cautious. And the goldfinch-sunflower relationship is well-established.

    In the short-term, I would protect the young sunflower plants with wire cages. However, planting more and planting amongst a greater diversity of alternate food plants is the best long-term solution.
    I hope this helps! Thanks for caring for our birds. 🙂

  • Jimmy

    Any suggestions on how to stop the birds from doing this? I have a niger feeder in the backyard, but my sunflowers in front are getting killed before they get higher than 2 feet tall. I can’t find any solutions online.

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