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Finding food in the goldenrod galls

Early January is a time of cold and snow, a time when we might feel trapped in winter. The days have slowly started to get longer, with sunrises earlier each day, and sunsets later. But most of us are concerned with the daily wintering conditions...

Goldenrod gall
Photo by Larry Weber for the Budgeteer A goldenrod gall stands empty on a winter day. A black-capped chickadee or downy woodpecker opened the hard gall to feed on the live insect larva within.
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Early January is a time of cold and snow, a time when we might feel trapped in winter. The days have slowly started to get longer, with sunrises earlier each day, and sunsets later. But most of us are concerned with the daily wintering conditions. The birds that winter with us and regularly come to the feeders add much to the scene. Each day we have the usual chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers. And now as we progress into the cold times, finches of various species arrive as well. I usually don't see redpolls until after the first of the year and, sure enough, they are now here with the new year. Apparently up until now, they find plenty of food in the seeds of alders, birches and smaller plants.

They seem to get by on this diet of seeds (I maintain sunflower seeds, thistle seeds and suet for the avian visitors), but I have noticed how some, when not at their feeding sites, will seek out other meals. Recently, I was watching a black-capped chickadee on a pine branch, and noticed how it appeared to be digging into the wood. Seconds later, it emerged holding a large and tasty caterpillar for a snack. We don't think of insects being available on these days but, when they know how and where to find them, birds do locate and feed on insects. In addition to the chickadees that I saw, others pursue similar foods as well. Woodpeckers and nuthatches will delve into bark for such finds, usually caterpillars, the larva form of an insect. Less likely to be seen by us, but still present, are the brown creepers and golden-crowned kinglets. Both are small birds with tiny thin beaks, but are able to tease into flaking bark or examine thick clusters of dead leaves and needles to find winter insects. Protein in this food adds much to the seeds, berries and fruits of winter. Most of their feeding goes unnoticed by us, but there is one situation of birds feeding on insects in winter that many of us have probably seen.

Way back last summer, a tiny insect, a gall fly, climbed up the stem of a goldenrod and laid an egg. The plant responded to this violation by swelling up and forming a hard ball-shaped growth known as a goldenrod gall. Though it was on the stem of a plant, the green leaves and large yellow flowering parts above kept us from noticing the gall. Later in the season as the plant faded, fluffy seeds developed on top and the stem turned brown. With the lack of green, the enlarged gall became quite easy to see. Within the gall a short white worm larva, often called a grub, continues to live. Remarkably, this immature fly will overwinter in this unheated chamber and emerge as an adult in the spring, if not eaten by the hungry birds of winter.

It seems as though a couple of our wintering birds have learned that these swellings on goldenrod stems means food and they will pursue it. The plant can hold only small birds with beaks strong enough to break open the tough material of the galls, a task that can be accomplished by black-capped chickadees and downy woodpeckers. Persistently working their way through, these little birds will reach and devour the grub inside. Though we seldom actually see this happening, we will often find the gall that has been broken open and fed upon, now empty in winter. Northlanders who go ice fishing have also learned that there is live food inside goldenrod galls and have used this as a source of live bait for many years. Apparently, fish too enjoy some live food in winter.

Once again, whether it is at the feeders or beyond, our wintering bird neighbors demonstrate a great ability to adapt and survive the winter.

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Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including "Butterflies of the North Woods," "Spiders of the North Woods" and "Webwood." Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com .

Larry Weber
Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including "Butterflies of the North Woods," "Spiders of the North Woods" and "Webwood." Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

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