Colourful in more ways than one, the goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis) is one of Britian's most attractive birds and through learning a little more about this delightful bird it is possible to see them more often and even attract them regularly into your own garden.
Goldfinches in captivity
The goldfinch’s bright colours have made it a focus of human attention for many centuries. In the 19th century goldfinches were widely kept as a cage bird with literally hundreds of thousands of birds being taken from the wild in Britain. One of the first battles that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, or RSPB, fought was against this business but it wasn’t until 1933 that government passed an act to make the sale of wild birds illegal.
From the brink of extinction the British population of goldfinches has now recovered so that this delightful finch has become a familiar sight once again.
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How to identify goldfinches
The plumage of the goldfinch is immediately striking. Both sexes have a black, white and red head pattern and are essentially similar, though the male has a little more red around the eye and a slightly larger beak. In flight, the yellow wing bar becomes a more obvious feature, contrasting with the black plumage around it.
Juvenile birds, which can be seen in early summer, are distinctly less colourful, their buff colour and lack of face markings help them to avoid the attention of predators.
Nesting habits of the goldfinch
Goldfinches leave nesting until later in the season than most other garden birds. Their first brood hatches around June and subsequent broods hatch as late as September. They choose this strategy so that the birth of their young coincides with times of plentiful food.
Their nest is made from grass and mud and is lined with wool to create a deeply cupped extremely well insulated nest. They often adorn the exterior of their nest with lichen, carefully collected from surrounding trees, presumably to add camouflage to their construction.
Goldfinches often nest in loose colonies and are capable of attaching their nests to the flexible outer branches of trees and bushes. They usually nest high in trees for security.
The female lays five or six white, finely spotted eggs and these take two weeks to hatch, in this time the male collects food for the female to enable her to incubate the eggs almost continuously. The young are fed predominantly on the regurgitated seeds of a variety of plants depending upon the season.
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What do goldfinches eat?
Goldfinches primarily eat seeds. In early summer goldfinches feed on the seeds of small plants such as dandelions and groundsel, in late summer thistles and teasels become their most important source of food. Their long, slim beaks have evolved to make the goldfinch a specialist thistle feeder.
One of its earliest recorded local names is ‘Thisteltuige’, this Anglo-Saxon name of the eighth century literally means thistle-tweaker. Even the scientific name Carduelis carduelis is derived from the Latin, Carduus, meaning thistle. The male of the species has a slightly longer beak enabling him to reach the seed of the teasel so the female then monopolises the thistles.
If you can get close to a goldfinch feeding on a teasel you may hear the vibration as the finch shakes its beak in the seed hole presumably to widen the gap or loosen the seed. They need to be deft with their feet and wings to hold tight as the wind blows the teasels around.
Goldfinches have relatively short, stout legs to enable them to hold tight but they often need to use outstretched wings to balance counteract the buffeting of the wind.
Find out more about feeding garden birds
How to attract goldfinches into your garden
It was in late summer that I first became entranced by the behaviour of goldfinches as large flocks fed on areas of teasel and thistle. I decided to plant teasels in our garden to attract them and now, several years on we even leave an area of thistles.
The multi-faceted teasel has a delightful pink flower which is attractive to bees and butterflies, its dried seed head is also very popular in dried flower arrangements. It is a biennial, flowering once every two years, so to have flowers and seed heads each year it is necessary to plant them in two successive years.
Know what to plant to attract birds
Once you have attracted goldfinches to the garden it is possible to keep them coming throughout the year by providing niger seed in a special feeder available from bird food retailers.
Obviously, natural food is best but late winter and early spring are lean times for seed-eating birds and by providing this food supply it is possible to keep large flocks of goldfinches at the time when they are contemplating pairing up and nesting.
Very few other birds or mammals show any interest in niger seed so you won't have problems with squirrels and magpies.
Find out about keeping squirrels and rats away from bird food
Being predominantly seed eating birds, goldfinches do need to drink more than most other species so the availability of water is essential to their success.
Goldfinches also like to bathe regularly and their enthusiastic approach to washing is great to watch. I have seen a flock of fifteen goldfinches simultaneously bathing in a garden water feature, they seemed to enjoy its cascading waterfall.
In summer, natural sources of water can be difficult to find so garden ponds take on extra importance to all garden birds, particularly the seed eating species such as sparrows and finches.
Find out about the British birds you might spot in your garden
Flocks of goldfinches
Goldfinches often fly long distances to locate suitable food and they usually feed in loose flocks. Given their gregarious nature you would expect them to co-operate but nothing could be further from the truth. Regular squabbles break out particularly if one bird approaches too close to another’s feeding area.
Ever alert to danger, chaffinches often take flight en masse and it is then that their delightful flight calls can be heard. Sounding something like a tinkling of bells this song has earned the goldfinch the rather lovely collective noun, ‘Charm’.
The word charm may be related to the Latin word ‘Carmen’ meaning ‘magic song or spell’ but the dictionary definition ‘quality or feature that excites love or admiration’ is equally appropriate. Whatever the reason, a flock of goldfinches excites the senses with flashes of yellow and red adding visual impact to the exquisite song; this is my finch charming.
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