I am attempting to identify all the life in my garden. Having discussed plants in my last two postings, I am today returning to birds -specifically the goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis).
In the past I have hardly ever seen goldfinches in my garden, but recently, on a whim, I hung up a feeder of thistle seeds (a favourite food of the goldfinch, carduelis being Latin for thistle) and within 24hours I was able to take the photo left. (I do not have a fancy camera with telescopic lens. The shot was taken from as near as I could get!). You can see the tube of black thistle seeds at the top of the picture.
In an attempt to learn something about goldfinches I have been reading Finches by Ian Newton (part of the Collins ‘New Naturalist’ series). It seems I’m fairly lucky to have seen a goldfinch at this time of year since, according to the book, “4/5ths leave Oxford in winter” for southern Europe, especially Iberia where they are amongst the most common birds in winter. Goldfinches leave Britain around mid-September and return around mid-April.
Other points I found interesting include:
The goldfinch is the only finch that can reach the seeds of teasels, and apparently it is only the cocks that can do this easily (which seems a little unfair on the hens!). The beak of the cock is slightly longer (by ~1mm, 9%) a fact mentioned by Darwin: “I am assured…that the bird catchers can distinguish males by their slightly longers beaks”.
Further to the mention of ‘bird catchers’ the goldfinch was apparently a particular target of this profession in the last century with a record of 132,000 being caught in one year (1860). Combating this trade was one of the first targets for the then newly formed Society for the Protection of Birds (which I take to be the same organisation as today’s RSPB).
Goldfinches, unlike chaffinches, do not invest significant effort in defending territories. I am sure the experts out there will correct me, but I understand the argument is something like this: Trees harbour insects. If, like chaffinches, you sometimes eat insects it is worthwhile to defend a territory that contains trees (which are after all, “permanent fixtures” in the landscape). Goldfinches only eat seeds however. The timing and location of e.g. thistles in-seed is highly variable and therefore, as a goldfinch, you cannot afford to restrict the territory from which you are prepared to gather food.
I have said before that I do not envy the life expectancy of a robin. I do not envy the diet of a young goldfinch either : “While collecting food for the young, adult carduelines husk seeds…When their crops are full, they take a few sips of water and a few particles of grit, then fly to the nest and regurgitate the whole mass into the open mouths of the young”. Yummy!
The goldfinch was introduced into New Zealand, Tasmania and Australia in the 1860’s (I don't know by who or why) where it is now apparently extremely common.
Finally, I learnt from Narena Oliver’s website that the goldfinch’s fondness for thistle heads led to it being used to symbolise the Passion of Christ in sixteenth century art and that it gets a mention by Chaucer : “Gaillard he was as a goldfynch in the shawe” (which apparently ‘translates’ as: he was as merry as a goldfinch in the wood). Hooray for the gaillard goldfynch!