What’s attacking my sunflowers?

If you have sunflowers you may have noticed strange holes like these in the leaves. The damage usually starts at the stem end and progresses toward the tip, affecting only the part of the leaf between the veins.

Is the culprit a snail? But there’s no slime trail. A caterpillar? But there’s no sign of them, either, or their poop.

Surprise – you have goldfinches!

They’re primarily seed eaters – you may have a bird feeder with nyjer seeds for goldfinches and house finches, which are common in this area. But they also love sunflower leaves.

You can see them in action in this video at The Birders Report.

Nyjer (thistle) seeds provide protein and fatty oils in the birds’ diet. As it happens, sunflowers are in the same plant family (Asteraceae) as nyjer, so it’s not surprising that when goldfinches seek greens in their diet, they’re attracted to sunflower leaves. Helianthus (sunflower) leaves have anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties and have been used for medicinal purposes, so maybe there’s another plus there for our feathered neighbors.

I’ve noticed that goldfinches also nibble on my Tuscan kale and rhubarb leaves. So if you see leaves eaten between the veins, leaving pointy edges like pinking shears would make, it’s probably due to birds.

What to do if your sunflower plants are literally being eaten to death? You could try these permaculture techniques:

  • Disperse and integrate: Rather than plant your sunflowers in one clump, scatter them throughout your garden.
  • Quantity: Plant more! Sharing is caring 🙂
  • Diversity: Plant other varieties with leaves that are attractive to goldfinches, such as wild strawberries, or, as I’ve found, Tuscan kale and rhubarb. I leave the holey kale leaves for the birds to munch on and harvest the leaves they haven’t bothered for myself. Rhubarb isn’t a problem since the leaves are toxic to humans (apparently not birds) and the leaves are so big, the plant isn’t harmed by a little pecking.

Celebrate the fact that you’ve drawn birds to your garden! Have you noticed birds nibbling on any other types of leaves? Write and let us know!

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