April 2013 - The Goldfinch

Goldfinches feeding on sunflower hearts - Lin's garden July 2012

The goldfinch, a beautiful bird with bright red face and yellow wing patches, is frequently seen at our bird tables in Bawburgh, both summer and winter. It is a sociable bird, seen in flocks of 10 or more (reported up to about 40) in winter. The collective name for this bird is a 'charm,' an admirable description.  Both sexes are similar in appearance except that the male's red face extends slightly behind the eye.  They have long slender beaks which are used to extract seeds from thistles, teasels, dandelions, alder and birch. Insects supplement their diet in summer. Niger seeds and sunflower hearts are favourites at the bird table. The goldfinch is a true song bird with a combination of twitterings and tinklings, and if you are lucky you may see the song accompanied by a pivoting display in which the male drops its wings slightly and pivots from side to side - a sight once seen, never forgotten. Goldfinches used to be commonly kept cage birds because of their song and striking appearance.

The goldfinch's cup-shaped nest is built by the female bird, usually at the end of a tree branch, bush or hedge, and comprises moss, grass, lichen, and is lined with wool and plant down.  The eggs are smooth, pale blue with reddish markings; incubation is again only by the female. The young are fed by both parents.

In Christian symbolism, the goldfinch is associated with the Passion and Christ’s Crown of Thorns. Where it appears in pictures of the Madonna and Child (e.g.  painting by Raphael), it represents the foreknowledge Jesus and Mary had of the Crucifixion. For this reason it is sometimes known as the ‘saviour’ bird, and may be pictured with the common fly which represents sin and disease. It is also an emblem of endurance, fruitfulness and persistence and is associated with Saint Jerome.

According to the RSPB website, there are 313,000 breeding pairs of goldfinch in the UK. Many of these will migrate to south west Europe e.g. France and Spain, in the winter; the RSPB estimate 100,000 individual birds remain to winter in the UK. Studies have shown that more females than males migrate, and if a bird migrates one year it may not necessarily migrate in subsequent years. In the 1970s and 80s there was a serious decline in the population which was thought to be due to increased use of herbicides. Although the population has recovered, changing agricultural practices continue to threaten bird numbers.



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