A History of Birds. Goldfinch
This bird’s name is of ancient origin, so that even in Anglo-Saxon texts it was referred to as the goldfinc . Yet it has also been widely known for many centuries as the thistle-finch, because of its love of the seeds from that plant. Indeed, the scientific name for the goldfinch, Carduelis carduelis , is derived from the Latin word for thistle, carduus . Other common regional variants included the goldspink or gold linnet; in the Midlands its beautiful plumage led to it being known by the pleasingly appropriate name of proud-tailor.
This bird’s bright plumage – especially the flashy yellow feathers on the wings – has led to an association with gold, and therefore money. Since at least Tudor times, the colloquial term for gold coins such as sovereigns or guineas was ‘goldfinch’, a word that was still used in the early nineteenth century. A goldfinch also became slang for a wealthy man. Hence, tradition has it that if an unmarried girl saw a goldfinch on St Valentine’s Day, she would marry someone well off.
Goldfinch in art
Renaissance paintings with a religious theme often feature the goldfinch, especially works originating from Italy. The bird is frequently held by the infant Jesus or his mother, Mary. The red feathers on the goldfinch’s face were said to have arisen when the bird tried to pull a thorn from Christ’s head on the day of the crucifixion and was spotted with his blood. Hence in Renaissance paintings the inclusion of this bird seems to foreshadow events to come in the life of the infant. There was also a metaphor here: Christ withstood the thorns and created the Christian Church, and the goldfinch avoids harm from the thorn-like thistle and uses it to feed a family.
Goldfinch was thought to have curative powers in some European countries, perhaps because of their association with Christ, but gold too was said to be healing. Leonardo da Vinci described this belief:
The goldfinch is a bird of which it is related that, when it is carried into the presence of a sick person, if the sick man is going to die, the bird turns away its head and never looks at him; but if the sick man is to be saved the bird never loses sight of him but is the cause of curing him of all sickness.
Goldfinch was very popular caged bird for centuries since they were beautiful and the males sang sweetly. They could also be taught ingenious tricks such as using a small bucket on a chain to draw up food and water, ringing bells, acting dead, pulling a tiny cart, and even firing a miniature cannon on command.
Some owners took to breeding their own goldfinches and a number of varieties arose such as the yellow-breasted and the white-headed goldfinch. Keepers learned that if goldfinches were raised completely in the dark or fed exclusively on hemp seed then all the colours were lost and a pure black goldfinch resulted. It was also discovered that goldfinch and canaries would interbreed to produce hybrid birds called ‘mules’. These varied greatly and unpredictably in appearance: whilst some were beautiful, the majority were rather drab, although many of them seemed to have a sweet song.
Caged goldfinches live longer than wild birds. The sixteenth-century German naturalist Conrad Gesner reported one that was so elderly that its feathers had turned white with age. It was reckoned at twenty-three years old, it had lost the ability to fly and consequently stayed wherever it was placed. The bird could no longer keep itself clean, so the owner was obliged to regularly scrape its beak and claws so that it could eat, drink, and perch.
There could be unexpected consequences of keeping pet goldfinches. A gentlemen named Randal Burough from County Clare in Ireland had an unusual experience in 1836. He owned two pet goldfinches that lived in the drawing room most of the time but their cage doors were left open so they regularly flew around the house and out into the countryside. He continues the tale in his own words:
Examples of goldfinch and canary mules
The winter was beginning to be severe, and the food suitable for small birds consequently scarce, when one day the two goldfinch brought with them a stranger of their own species, who made bold to go into the two cages that were always left open and regale itself on the hospitality of his new friends, and then took his departure. He returned again and brought others with him, so that in a few days half a dozen of these pretty warblers were enjoying the food so bountifully provided for them. There was soon a flock of not less than twenty visiting the apartment daily, and perfectly undisturbed by the presence of members of our family. It was the innocent cause of making many idlers, for several strange gentlemen were in the habit of stopping for hours in amazement at the novel scene.
There was such a great demand for goldfinch as pets that they were caught in very large numbers. Even in the second half of the nineteenth century, enormous quantities were captured: around 1860, reputedly over 130,000 were taken annually in the Worthing area. The birds were enticed towards nets using a variety of techniques: a stuffed goldfinch could be used as a decoy or lots of thistles collected together to lure them with food. A tethered tame goldfinch might be allowed to feed nearby and so attract others to join it; some bird catchers impersonated the bird’s song to draw the finches closer or employed a singing caged bird to pull the wild birds in. Instead of nets, another option was to use bird lime. This was a sticky substance spread onto twigs and other perching places to which birds became stuck.
Some people objected to the abuse of wildlife in Victorian times, including author and poet Thomas Hardy, who used the goldfinch as an allegory a number of times in his writing. In The Mayor of Casterbridge , Elizabeth-Jane is given a caged goldfinch by her manipulative stepfather as an act of contrition for his bad behaviour towards her, but she snubs him and sends him away. The goldfinch is forgotten and is found several to days later, starved to death. Upset, Elizabeth-Jane decides to forgive her stepfather, but by the time she finds him again, he too has died of starvation. Whilst the goldfinch had a physical cage, her stepfather was trapped in a cage of his own misdeeds. Hardy also wrote a poignant poem entitled The Caged Goldfinch suggesting, perhaps, that living creatures should not be treated as mere possessions, and that there is more to nature than simply adorning the human experience:
Within a churchyard, on a recent grave,
I saw a little cage
That jailed a goldfinch. All was silence save
Its hops from stage to stage.
There was inquiry in its wistful eye,
And once it tried to sing;
Of him or her who placed it there, and why,
No one knew anything.
The hunting of goldfinch reached such ridiculous proportions that the fledgling Royal Society for the Protection of Birds decided to act. One of its first ever campaigns was ‘Save the goldfinch’ and fortunately, it was a great success: Goldfinch trapping is now a thing of the past.
Goldfinch in recent years has flourished, and they have become a favourite in UK gardens. This means that more of us can enjoy watching them as the poet John Keats did in one of his most famous early works, I Stood Tip-toe Upon a Little Hill (1816). It includes these lines:
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.
Birds of a feather
Over the centuries, wordsmiths have coined appealing terms to describe assemblages of certain birds. A notable example is a charm of goldfinch, which seems to originate from the Anglo-Saxon cirm , meaning chatter or noise, especially from many voices together. The phrase ‘a chyrme of fynches’ dates back to at least the early fifteenth century. This example, and a number of other collective nouns for birds, evoke the sound made by gatherings of a particular species, and include an exaltation of larks, a gaggle of geese, and a murmuration of starlings.
Other collective nouns reflect the perceived behaviour of a bird. Owls are believed to be intelligent, so their assembling is described as a parliament , suggesting some sort of wise council. Teals are small ducks that leap into the air when they take off; hence a collection of them is known as a spring . A murder of crows recalls the potentially sinister overtones of such a gathering, given this bird’s customary association with death or evil.
There have been modern attempts to add to these long-standing terms, with suggestions such as a scold of jays or a screech of gulls, but they have not been widely adopted.
A History of Birds by Simon Wills