Ultimate bird profiles: Goldfinches

Reader's Digest Editors 1 April 2022

Great agility and a narrow, pointed bill enable the goldfinch to probe the spiky heads of tall weeds in autumn, in order to extract the soft, feathery seeds, a feat beyond many other small birds.

The scientific name for goldfinches, Carduelis, is derived from carduus, the Latin for thistle, reflecting the goldfinch’s predilection for this particular source of food. It is the only British finch that can reach inside teasles without difficulty, grasp the seeds in a tweezer-like grip and successfully extract them, a feat noted by naturalist Charles Darwin. The male has a slightly longer bill than the female, and so can do this even more easily.

Although in spring they may be quarrelsome with other species, especially when in competition for sunflower hearts and niger seeds at bird tables, goldfinches are generally sociable birds. In fact, the only time goldfinches may become aggressive, even towards other goldfinches, is when they are nesting and food is in short supply.

Caged songsters

Goldfinch sits on a branch
Photo by Steve Harrris on Unsplash

Towards the end of the 19th century, the number of goldfinches in Britain had been brought dangerously low by intensive trapping for the caged bird trade. In 1860 it was reported that 132,000 a year were being caught near Worthing in Sussex. A few years later, a House of Commons committee was told of a boy who took 480 in a single morning.

The Society for the Protection of Birds (later RSPB) made the saving of the goldfinch from the trapper one of its first tasks, and today small groups and family parties, aptly known as "charms" of goldfinches, are a familiar sight, feeding on the heads of thistles and other tall weeds in late summer and early autumn. They can often be seen throughout the winter, feeding in flocks with other finches, but when the weather gets really cold, many goldfinches migrate to France, Spain, and Belgium—some go as far as North Africa—and it seems that more females than males make the trip.

The song for which the bird was caged in Victorian times is a tinkling variation of the most frequently heard flight note, a liquid ‘"switt-witt-witt".

goldfinch on a feeder
Photo by Andrea Lightfoot on Unsplash

It is given when the male is establishing his territory in large gardens and orchards, and sometimes in thick hedgerows or open woodland. Changes in agriculture have reduced the thistle beds among which the species feeds but, at the same time, the reservation of areas for quarries and other development has provided it with new foraging grounds.

In courtship, which always takes place near the nest, the male droops and partly opens its wings, sways from side to side, and exhibits its bright yellow wing flashes.

 

Nesting

goldfinch close up
Photo by Raoul du Plessis on Unsplash

Female goldfinches build neat nest of roots, grass, moss, and lichen, lined with wool and vegetable down, usually in spreading tree; lays early May-August; usually, 5 or 6 eggs, pale blue, lightly spotted with brown; incubation 12 or 13 days, by female only; nestlings, fed by both parents, fly after 13 or 14 days; normally two broods, sometimes three.

 

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