Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Goldfinches and Sweetgum Balls

When the winter landscape stands bare and hides nothing, I find myself doing a lot more looking up into the tree canopy.  The denuded trees against a bright blue winter sky are living sculptures providing winter interest to the garden.  There is also plenty of activity up there with birds feasting on seeds and tree sap, or fluffing up to stay warm, hawks perched canvasing the land below and squirrels racing around the aerial obstacle course. So, look up, you may be surprised to find a lot more going on in your garden than you thought!
 
One of the trees, which populates our property is the Sweetgum tree (Liquidambar styraciflua). It is a pioneer species, establishing itself in areas that have been clear cut [farming and development]. It loves our acidic clay soil. While many homeowners don't find this tree so sweet because of the spiky balls that fall and litter the ground, it is a fabulous tree for supporting wildlife. Sweetgum balls, the tree's seed pods, are a goldfinch magnet. Just look up at any mature sweet gum tree in winter and more than likely you'll observe that all the balls dangling from the branches are covered in goldfinches. This is the case in our garden.

Can you find the goldfinches?

They may be difficult to spot initially as they adorn their softer, quieter plumage this time of year (see Sibley Guides to annual plumage cycle of a goldfinch), but look closely and your eye will catch their movement as they hop from one seed pod to another. The prickly balls have lots of compartment on the sphere, each containing two seeds.


Goldfinches often sit on the balls and swing back and forth as they stick their beaks into the seed pod to pull out their prize. They are industrious little birds and pretty entertaining as they swing effortlessly from one ball to another.


Sometimes they perch on a branch, grabbing a ball and pulling it towards them to safely secure it in place and then search for the seeds.


The American sweetgum tree is every inch a treasure, starting in spring when the the star shaped leaves serve as larval host for several moths including the Luna, Promethea, Imperial, and Regal moths. In late fall when the bright green seed pods have dried, birds including purple finches, chickadees, Carolina wrens, towhees, titmice, dove and juncos consume the seeds; as do, squirrels and chipmunks.

The sap, from where it's name derives, is sweet and attracts yellow-bellied sapsuckers who mark the tree trunks with uniform rows of holes. (For more on these woodpeckers read Yellow-bellied sapsuckers and their feeding holes )

Lastly, if you are not a fan of the Sweetgum balls that litter the ground, consider using them as mulch. They work well to deter dogs laying in the flower beds. And, if you're crafty they make a gorgeous wreath with a nice textural element.

22 comments:

  1. I am always thrilled when I see goldfinches, and you have given me a new appreciation of sweet gum trees. I still would not want one in the middle of my lawn, but I am very happy I have a few in my woodlands!

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    1. The saying right plant, right place definitely applies here. We have many in our woodland edges too and they fit there well. I love the balls dangling from the tree like ornaments.

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  2. It is funny, but today I walked through a lot of those spiky buckeye balls. I was thinking about what they could be used for too. I never did see a goldfinch feeding on sweetgum though. That is new to me.

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    1. Buckeye balls look similar when green. I often spray paint the sweetgum balls silver and gold for Christmas. They can be used in many different ways if one is creative.

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  3. Interesting! Didn't know this about Goldfinches and Sweetgums. Still, I would never plant one - Judy likes walking barefoot in the garden.

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    1. I get that. There is a balance between enjoying your garden and living with wildlife. This tree is definitely not for everyone. Our trees are in areas where there is now lawn so we wouldn't be walking barefoot there.

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  4. Yes, it is fun to watch the goldfinches! I don't have a sweetgum tree, but the goldfinches do love the echinaceas and the rudbeckias that I leave standing over the winter. I've always thought the sweetgum was an interesting tree (it's native to Illinois just south of us and some people have it here), but I think it needs a more open area than I can provide here in my Oak forest/Oak opening little ecosystem. Awesome seedheads, though.

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    1. Goldfinches are great little birds. They also love our sunflowers and ironweed during the winter months. They really blend in with their muted plumage. I just think it is great to see them eating from the plants. It is so much more rewarding than just putting up feeders. (Although we do that too when it is especially cold).

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  5. I'm a huge fan of sweetgums. How could you not like a tree that goldfinches flock to, to eat their seeds? But alas, they're "messy" if planted along a driveway, etc. I'm glad to see them as street trees here in Asheville.

    I always encourage folks to plant them!

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    1. I agree Lisa. I think the balls are beautiful and they can be used in so many different ways, that what's not to love!

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  6. These are such pretty birds and it's so great that you get to see them. I had no idea about the gum trees, so thanks for the info. :)

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  7. You are always teaching and I learned something..I find it interesting that even with bird feeders here, many goldfinch are eating my garden seeds...Michelle

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    1. We put feeders up in winter too but really only see them filled with birds right before a storm or severe temperature changes. I observe finches on the plants, trees, shrubs in our garden more often than at feeders. The exception are the titmice and chickadees who frequent the feeders.

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  8. My mom had to laugh once when she saw Martha Stewart painting sweet gum balls to decorate napkin rings for fancy parties. They are definitely prized much more up north, where they are hard to get, and people actually pay money for the sweetgum balls (vs down south where people would probably pay money to get rid of them). Having turned an ankle while slipping on those prickly little balls, I'm rather glad I don't have sweetgums, though the leaves are gorgeous in fall and they are definitely great trees for wildlife.

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    1. So true Indie! The grass is always greener, right. Where the sweetgum grows (wooded vs. landscaped area)seems to determine people's view of the tree. They either love it or hate it. Sometimes there is that fine line in gardening.

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  9. I loved seeing your goldfinches. We have many of them here in the summer. I am not sure what they find to eat here as they are such a tiny bird. They seem to like sunflower seeds and perhaps the nygar seeds. I wonder if that type of tree would grow in my part of Canada.

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    1. I don't think the sweetgum tree grows that far north. It's native range is to southern parts of Illinois/Ohio and up along the East coast. If not at feeders they will eat seeds from perennials such as sunflowers, thistle, asters as well as from elm, red cedar and birch trees.

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  10. Our trees are more devoid of birds, but there are still some around. I see Cardinals, Blue Jays and Chick-a-dee on a regular basis. I also see the occasional hawk gliding in the direction of the Credit River. I am trying to think if I have ever seen a Sweetgum tree here. I don't think I have, but I will be more on the lookout now.

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    1. I don't think Sweetgum trees grow that far north Jennifer, so you probably wouldn't see them in your area. I am curious what trees you have growing around you that don't support any birds.

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  11. I love a tree that supports wildlife. It's a hard life for a bird in winter and anything we can plant to naturally feed and house wildlife makes me happy.

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    1. I agree. On those really cold windy winter days when I see the birds fluffing up to stay warm makes me sad. I always make sure there is supplemental food for them. Also why it is so important to keep up spend flowers for seeds and fruit bearing shrubs in the garden. This winter wasn't particularly cold and all the fruit on the beautyberry, winterberry, sumac and red cedar were eaten in a very short time.

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"Don't wait for someone to bring you flowers. Plant your own garden and decorate your soul"

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