A male American goldfinch. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

SOMETHING SOFT AND SHINY FLOATED PAST reminiscent of a dandelion seed attached to its airy parachute. It rose and fell with the slight breeze and sparkled in the sunshine. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be a tiny person and ride it into the distance, miles away? It rose and disappeared as several more came through in its place.

What was it and where was the source? It was too large to be a dandelion seed and it was too early for milkweed to disperse. After following them back and westward, there was the answer, a large clump of thistle and an industrious little bird gleefully pulling apart the once purple but now seed-filled brown flowers. This was the source of the floating seeds. Bits of fluff stuck to the bird’s head and body while it extracted and ate the thistle seed. For every seed he ate, several escaped to drift away and start new plants for next year’s harvest.

He was a gorgeous male American goldfinch, with a bright yellow body, black wings and cap, and a black tail containing a few white feathers. This was his season and he was top fellow on this choice spot. Normally these birds fly away as one approaches, but this one was oblivious and clung to the stiff, prickly plant. His contortions to get the seeds loose and not get stabbed were fascinating, and 15 minutes of observation time and photographs flew by.

The flexibility of his body was amazing as he twisted upside-down, and around the seed head. His strength was Herculean as he arched his back and tugged out the tenacious tufts. There was the probability that this nutritious food was destined for his young, for Goldfinch are late nesters and this coincides with thistle seed production. There were still a few purple flower heads left that would extend the food source for the goldfinch.

Our family tradition had it that ancestors in Germany could be fined if thistles grew in the fields. A summer farm job here was to send out the youth to mow pastures and field edges before the thistle had a chance to reach the seed stage. Handling hay full of thistles was unpleasant and the livestock didn’t think much of it either. No matter what was done there were always some growing and were difficult to avoid when running barefoot along a stream or through a summer pasture. For this reason, thistle was made the emblem of Scotland. In the 1200s a king from Norway landed on Scottish shores and the invaders removed their shoes to quietly creep in barefoot for the night attack. A man stepped on a thistle, screamed in pain, and Scotland was saved! The Scottish Duncan ancestor has now overruled the German ancestor; no one on this old farm goes barefoot anymore, and the goldfinch can live well with an abundant source of food. Hurray for the thistle!

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