A lovely, common bird sound is of goldfinches moving through the air. These little birds are so busy shouting to each other at the tops of their voices that they often seem to forget to flap their wings, so their flight pattern is a particularly bouncy one. Their calls have a sparkly chime to them. It is the bird equivalent of the joyful sound of children in a school playground at break time.
They gather on chimney pots, aerials and the uppermost twigs of trees where they gossip amongst themselves. Goldfinches were birds of the countryside but they’ve learned to thrive in city gardens, making regular visits to feeders. Their ability to adapt feeding habits from the seed heads of arable farmland weeds to the hanging sunflower hearts and other feeds of back gardens has enabled goldfinches to enjoy a boom time. Unlike many other small British birds, their numbers have doubled in the last 50 years and we now have more than a million pairs here.
When you see them up close for the first time, you may spot their red faces before the gold wing feathers that give them their name. These bright colours are almost too exotic and don’t quite look in place in a London garden. It is only when in flight that you notice how much gold they wear: a thick band across their wings. The males show this off when trying to attract a mating partner in spring. The young birds develop the gold first and later their red faces. They’ll often accompany the adults to food spots and sit watching them, shouting what seem to be instructions.
A particularly lovely sight at this time of year is of a charm of goldfinches descending on thistles, their natural food source. Whenever you’re passing waste ground, listen out for the happy chatter of these birds as they work their way through the silky thistledown to reach the seeds. Creeping thistle, cirsium arvense, is often considered a thug of a plant but its honey-scented flowers give way to fat heads full of goldfinch food. If you see them growing somewhere, chances are you’ve found a goldfinch playground.
Isabel Hardman is assistant editor of The Spectator and author of The Natural Health Service
Have you noticed any goldfinches in the city? Let us know in the comments below.