I live in the suburb of East Finchley, on the Northern line in London. I am only twenty minutes from the centre of town and my environment is very urban, with buses ploughing up and down the High Street and the occasional sound of police car sirens. However, the word ‘Finchley’ is said to come from Anglo-Saxon, meaning ‘place of the finches’ and is an indication of Finchley’s much more rural past. This week, the place has certainly been living up to its name. Furthermore, I finally got paid for my business trip to Prague, so I have treated myself to a new camera. I am having so much fun with it that I can scarcely contain myself, but for everyone’s sake, I shall try to, in case I outstay my welcome.
Firstly, the Chaffinch. What elegant birds they are, with their fluttering, moth-like flight, long tails and smokey colours. The female Chaffinch is sometimes mistaken for a female sparrow, but the white patches on the ‘shoulders’ and the double white wingbars are a dead giveaway. Plus, no self-respecting Chaffinch ever said ‘chirp’. The females say very little, and the males say ‘pink’, as if telling the world what colour they are. In fact, the word ‘Finch’ comes from the Old English ‘Fink’, which is what a Chaffinch’s call sounds like.
During the breeding season, however, the repetitive ‘pink-pink’ call is joined by a song, described by Mark Cocker in Birds Britannica as being likened by one ornithologist to ‘a cricketer’s run-up to the wicket, with the cadence as the bowling action’. The bird can repeat the call up to six times a minute, and up to three thousand times a day, and to hear it just click here and play the wonderful British Library recording. This call, and the voracity with which the bird sang, led to the male Chaffinch being used for singing competitions in the East End of London right through to the end of the nineteenth century. Two male Chaffinches would be placed in cages next to one another, usually in a smokey pub, and would start to sing as soon as they saw one another. The winner would be the bird who made the most repetitions of his call in the time allowed. In addition to losing their freedom, these little birds would sometimes also be blinded, in order to inure them to distraction and to increase their dependence on their owners. Fortunately this particular cruelty no longer takes place in the UK, although within living memory people would trap wild finches (particularly Goldfinch and Chaffinch) to crossbreed them with canaries. These birds were called ‘mules’, and would sometimes retain the bright plumage of their wild parents, coupled with the trilling song of the canary, and were readily available for purchase in pet shops.
The latin name of the Chaffinch, Fringilla coelebs, means ‘celibate finch’. This is probably because, whilst most finches can be seen in groups even during the breeding season, Chaffinches tend to be territorial while they are nesting, and to fight off any other Chaffinches who try to muscle in. Unlike other finches, Chaffinches feed their young on insects, and so they will protect the particular trees and bushes that harbour them. Other finches, who eat seeds, have to range far and wide in order to find enough, and so they don’t need all this territorial nonsense, and are rather more sociable.
In the winter, though, this territorial behaviour breaks down. Finches from Scandinavia turn up in the UK, fleeing the much harsher winter, and form into flocks. When the temperature drops and the hours of daylight become fewer, the birds stand more chance of finding food if they hang around together, and even the Chaffinches forget about keeping themselves to themselves, and gather, sometimes in enormous numbers.
Now, let’s talk about the Goldfinch.
Look at the long, tweezer-like bill of this finch, and compare it to the more all-purpose appendage of the Chaffinch. Goldfinches love the seeds of teasel and thistle (the Latin name for the finch, Carduelis carduelis, derives from the word for thistle), although here the bird is making do with sunflower seeds. I remember watching a ‘charm’ of Goldfinches working over a stand of thistle-heads like a troop of monkeys, hanging from the stalks, making their tinkly calls to one another, their wings flashing saffron as they flew from one plant to another. And then, as soon as they’d arrived, they were gone.
Now, have a look at the Goldfinch above. You need a good view, but it is possible to tell the sex of a Goldfinch from the red markings on its face. If the red patch seems to cut through the eye, the bird is a female. If it extends behind the eye, the bird is a male. Usually. Though as any birder will tell you, things are not always straightforward, especially when it’s pouring down with rain and you have a two-second glance of a Goldfinch from a murky hide, with someone’s elbow in your ear and someone else munching through tuna sandwiches and a packet of crisps.The Goldfinch is also a bird which features in over five hundred medieval and Renaissance paintings, often with Mary and the infant Jesus. It was believed to have health-giving properties, and I have lost track of the number of images I’ve seen of chubby infants with unfortunate Goldfinches on strings. In the picture below, two toddlers molest a Goldfinch.
Here, Tiepolo shows the Virgin and Child plus Goldfinch:And here, a fifteenth century artist, whose name is lost to us, paints the Madonna and Child with a Goldfinch. Why the Goldfinch? Probably because of its association with thistles (and hence the Crown of Thorns), and also because of its red face – the Robin is said to have acquired its red breast through plucking the thorns and puncturing itself, and maybe the Goldfinch was seen to have been similarly helpful. But, if we dig deeper, the Goldfinch was seen as a fertility symbol long before Christianity: Pliny has described how the bird was linked with the Roman deity Juno, goddess of light, childbirth and fertility. It’s likely that the symbolisim of the Goldfinch has been co-opted several times, from original Pagan beliefs, via Juno and then to the Virgin Mary. What a weight of history for this acrobatic, autumnally-coloured, enchanting little bird to carry.
As autumn wears on, it’s well worth taking a close look at any flocks of finches that turn up on the feeders. Sometimes, much rarer birds, such as Siskins, Bramblings, Redpolls and Linnets get mixed into the general bonhomie, and if I spot any I will definitely share them with you. But, really, when people say that British birds are boring, just point them in the general direction of these two gorgeous species. They were flying here when my house was a twinkle in a builder’s eye, and when there was a gibbet at the bottom of the road, and for many thousands of years before that. With our help, maybe they’ll be sparkling like little suns for many years to come.