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Goldfinch

by Gary Reading, Feb 2019

The goldfinch is one of our most exotic native birds. Its head is striped in red, white and black and breast tanned with chestnut splashes. Its speckled wings are black-tipped, as if delicately dipped in an inkwell, and adorned with the golden go faster stripes from which the bird takes its name.

But the goldfinch was not always known so. In Tudor times it was called a King Harry’s Red Cap, because of its kaleidoscopic plumage. The Anglo-Saxons, meanwhile, dubbed the bird a “thistle tweaker” – a name that stems from the ability to use its long fine beak to feast upon the seeds of spiky ragwort, dandelion, teasel and thistle.

The goldfinch’s song is more than equivalent to its handsome livery. The bird chirrups a long, liquid flow of tswit-twit tweets, as delicate as raindrops pattering off a corrugated tin roof.

Needless to say, such beauty has inspired many down the ages. 

The 17th century Dutch artist Carel Fabritius painted a lavish portrait of the bird, which centuries later has proved the inspiration for Donna Tartt’s literary bestseller, The Goldfinch.

The English romantic poet John Keats also wrote of his joy watching and listening to goldfinch in his 1884 work, I Stood Tiptoe Upon a Little Hill.  Keats took unashamed delight in their “yellow flutterings” and “feathers sleek”.

But by the late 19th century, the goldfinch’s beauty had proved its undoing. The trade in trapping and selling the birds to adorn cages in Victorian homes resulted in it being declared an endangered species.

Over recent decades, however, the goldfinch population has boomed; even as so many other British songbirds have suffered.

Much of this is thought to be the result of garden bird feeders keeping the birds going over winter. Goldfinches are partial to nyger seeds, in particular, and if you scatter them out you can expect to see the birds coming to feed, no matter how urban your garden.

Two may be a charm, but even to spot one is joy itself.