Goldfinch water colour from William Lewin's Birds of Great Britain, 1st edition published in 1789.
I have a charm of goldfinches here this winter, just a small charm of five or six birds. They are probably the pair which nested here last summer and which have decided, for some unknown reason, together their offspring, not to join the large winter flocks.
These flocks of goldfinches, sometimes together with other finches, in New Zealand, can comprise as many as 500 to 1000 birds and I often stop to watch them in my travels around the district as they move along the road verges or flutter over my dairy farmer neighbour’s paddocks, hunting for whatever seeds the summer may have left them. Sometimes the flock advances over the ground in a rolling fashion with birds continually moving over the flock from rear to front. They brighten a winter's day.
The natural range of the goldfinch is Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and Western Asia. Their commonest European name of thistlefinch has been gained because they are particularly fond of the seeds of plants such as the winged and Scotch thistle.
They were introduced into New Zealand in the 1860s along with other European birds and are probably now more numerous here than in Europe where, I understand, they are still captured for the trade in caged birds. They were also introduced into Argentina, Bermuda and Australia.
The goldfinch is the most striking of the finches introduced here. They have black wings with gold bars and the adult birds, both males and females, have a brilliant red face, slightly more extensive on the male. The crown is black with white around the ears and sides of the neck. Notwithstanding their gorgeous colouring, when feeding they are so harmonious with their surroundings it is not easy to detect them.
My charm which has stayed with me here this winter have a liking for the fruits of liquidamber tree which I have growing here and they also spend a lot of time stripping the downy seed heads of the sow thistles which I tend to let go in my excuse for a garden. When feeding they flutter from plant to plant, often hanging upside down to extract the seeds.
A neighbour tells me that her uncle used to capture goldfinches and cross breed them with canaries. The resulting offspring, called mules, no doubt because they were infertile, were much prized for their singing ability. Indeed, my friend still has one of the last birds her uncle had bred in a cage in her living room.
The goldfinch has figured very large in European folklore and the earliest English literature. The cook in Chaucer’s Canterbury tales was described as being “as merry as a goldfinch in the woods” — gaillard he was as a goldfynch in the shawe.
Because of their liking for thistles, goldfinches were adopted by Renaissance artists to symbolise the Passion of Christ. In Baroccio’s ‘Holy Family’ a goldfinch is held in the hand of St John who holds it high out of reach of an interested cat. In Cima’s ‘Madonna and Child’, a goldfinch flutters in the hand of the Christ Child.
— Waiotahi Valley, eastern Bay of Plenty, 2000
Goldfinch from A History of British Birds, 1st ed, 1851-57.
Reverend Francis Orpen Morris (editor), Benjamin Fawcett (engraver).
Thistle-finch, goldie, goldspink, King Harry, red-cap, proud-tail.
Widespread and common.
LINK to the Goldfinch Nest Page
Linger awhile upon some bending planks
That lean against a streamlet’s rushy banks,
And watch intently Nature’s gentle doings:
They will be found softer than ring–dove’s cooings.
Sometimes goldfinches one by one will drop
From low hung branches; little space they stop;
But sip, and twitter, and their feathers sleek;
Then off at once, as in a wanton freak:
Or perhaps, to show their black, and golden wings,
Pausing upon their yellow flutterings.
— John Keats
From Dresser's Birds of Europe, 1871-96.
William Lewin's Birds of Great Britain, 1st edition published in 1789. It contained 323 original watercolor illustrations (271 birds, 52 eggs).
A History of British Birds, 1st ed, 1851-57. Reverend Francis Orpen Morris (editor), Benjamin Fawcett (engraver).
Dresser, Henry E., Birds of Europe, 1871-96.
Heather, B., & Robertson, H., Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand, 2000.
Oliver, W.R.B., New Zealand Birds, 1955.
Tuesday, 5 September, 2023; ver2023v1