A Charm of Goldfinches

Carduelis Carduelis

Carduelis Carduelis

Ferdia demolished our beautiful bird-table – made for us by Danny – by jumping up and hanging on to the peanut feeder, swinging there until the whole thing came down: and he showed not one ounce of contrition! After his peanut feast he licked his lips, stared at us brazenly and seemed to say “Now, so – that was a grand game”…. The outcome is an architect-designed, post-modern, deconstructivist bird feeding station made from two broom handles (total cost 3 euros) that is painted green (of course) and is Fox proof!


Caught redhanded!

Ferdia may feel thwarted, but our resident Goldfinches are delighted. I was delighted, also, when I found out the collective noun for Goldfinches: a Charm. How apt – the birds are vivacious, colourful and noisy. The word might come from the latin Camina – song.

It’s hard to keep up with them as they fall out of the sky (literally – they just appear suddenly, flap around the feeders, hang on – often upside down, constantly squabble with each other, and then vanish just as quickly) but I have counted up to 20 in one ‘sitting’. The Chaffinches, Robin and Tits edge in occasionally, but when the Charm is around then it’s all-pervasive. Only the Greenfinches seem oblivious to the crowd and staunchly carry on with their meal through all the mad tumblings and twitterings.



Goldfinches have a folk name: Thistle-tweaker. Evidently their preference is for the thin seeds of thistles and teasels which they prise out with their beaks. We provide exactly the right seeds (purchased at the bird shop at great expense) but will they have them? Not a bit of it! Only one thing interests them and that’s the peanuts  – just like Ferdia. But their supposed liking for sharp seeds, and thorns for their nests, has given them a place in Christian iconography – and folklore.

A medieval legend tells that when Christ was carrying the cross to Calvary a Goldfinch came down and plucked a thorn from the crown around his head. Some of Christ’s blood splashed onto the bird as it drew the thorn out, and to this day Goldfinches have spots of red on their plumage (a similar story is told about the Robin). Certainly, Renaissance artists frequently depicted the Christ child with a Goldfinch, and it is suggested that the bird is linked to a foretelling by Christ of the manner of his death – something often attributed to the great Folk Heroes.

Chaucer’s Cook is thus described: “…gaillard he was as a goldfynch in the shawe…” – as merry as a goldfinch in the woods. In some parts of England the popular name for the bird was Proud Tailor – which picturesquely sums up the patchwork appearance of this busy and brightly colourful little character.

There is a Valentine’s Day tradition based around birds. If the first bird a girl sees on that day is a Bluetit, she will live in poverty; a Blackbird foretells marrying a clergyman; a Robin tells of a sailor; and if she sees a Woodpecker she will be left an old maid. If the first bird she sees is a Goldfinch, however, she is promised a wealthy marriage…

Goldfinches in Rennaissance art

Goldfinches in Renaissance art

John Keats wrote this verse in ‘I stood tip-toe upon a Little Hill’

…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…

Here in Ireland there is a tradition that Goldfinches – under their other folk name: Redcaps – haunt the realms of The Other Crowd, and they will always be seen around the raths (Fairy Forts), ancient mounds and in thorn trees. I will have to research that one.

7 thoughts

  1. Speaking of goldfinches, is the new Donna Tartt novel “The Goldfinch” on the radar there at Nead an Iolair? I haven’t read it yet, but it has generated some good reviews. The plot apparently revolves around “a small painting, a 17th-century masterpiece by Rembrandt’s pupil, Carel Fabritius”


  2. Agree with the deconstructionist and post ……. modern. Also share Elda’s concern about squirrels. Wondered though if a couple of Morris sticks may have been grand and saved a few punts like.


  3. Twenty? Brilliant birds. Surprised by sight of our one first goldfinch at the bird feeder tree here yesterday, had everything but, all summer. Now up to number 46 in my own I-spy book, since being at the farm. Is that architect designed broom delta grey squirrel proof?


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