Did you know a group of goldfinches is called a “charm”? With its bright feathers, lovely song and entertaining antics there could hardly be a better name for these fabulous little birds. In this article, we are going to take an in-depth look at the European goldfinch: where and when to see them and how to attract them to your garden.
Recognising the Goldfinch
As the name suggests, the goldfinch is a member of the finch family, one of our largest groups of garden birds, Though many finches are colourful, the goldfinch still manages to stand out.
What Does A Goldfinch Look Like?
Goldfinches have very distinctive plumage, but if you first see one with wings folded you might wonder why the word gold features in the name.
They are small birds, typically 12 cm long, with a wingspan of around 25 cm and weighing less than 20 grams.
Adult males and females look very similar. The first thing that is likely to strike you is the bright red face or mask. They have a white head with a black crown, white underside and buff or sandy chest and backs with distinctive black and white markings on the wing and tail feathers.
If you get a really close look you might be able to tell the male from the female. On males, the red mask extends behind the eyes, nose hairs are black on males and white on females, and wing feathers are black on male goldfinches and brown-tinged on females. The bird in the picture above is probably a male, but markings vary so much between individuals that it’s hard to be sure.
When a goldfinch flies its stunning black and yellow wings are revealed and it’s easy to see why it got its name.
Although the juvenile goldfinch has its distinctive wing markings from quite an early age they don’t develop the black and white head and trademark red face until after the first full moult.
The European Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis found here in the UK, has an American cousin, The American goldfinch Spinus tristis is also a member of the finch family but not the genus Carduelis. It has a similar wing and tail marking to our own European goldfinches. But he lacks the red face and is bright yellow all over.
What Does the Goldfinch Sound Like?
The song of the goldfinch is another reason why they are a pleasure to have around. The song is liquid and quite complex, have a listen to this:
Are Goldfinches Rare?
With their colourful plumage and melodious song, it’s no surprise that goldfinches were prized as a cage bird in the 19th century. What may be more of a surprise is that they were also used like canaries to detect the presence of dangerous gasses in coal mines (a practice that only ended in 1996).
Goldfinches were trapped for trade to the point where the wild population was nearly wiped out. Saving the goldfinch was one of the first campaigns of the Society for the protection of birds, the forerunner of the RSPB.
Goldfinches are now a conservation success story with over 1.2 million breeding pairs in the country, according to the RSBP. Their conservation status is green, least conservation concern, and they still receive protection under the Wildlife and countryside act.
Where to see Goldfinches
Goldfinches are widespread throughout the UK, with the exception of the highlands of Scotland. According to the Wildlife Trusts, they thrive in a wide variety of habitats grasslands, wetlands farmland, woodland and parks and gardens.
They like cover for safety and prefer to nest and feed high above the ground.
You should have no problem spotting a goldfinch!
What Do Goldfinches Eat?
Goldfinch diet varies through the seasons. They take invertebrates in summer, and this is what their chicks are first fed on. But they are known as seed eaters with a beak that has some very special adaptation to allow them to efficiently extract small seeds from plants and remove the husks.
This video gives a great in-depth look at just how the goldfinch is built to work on seeds:
Teasels, thistles, dandelions and ragwort are all favourite plants for the goldfinch.
Do Goldfinches Migrate?
Most of our UK breeding goldfinch population will overwinter in the UK. They live on seeds so are well adapted to survive the winter.
But along with other finches, the goldfinch Carduelis is an irruptive migrator and can choose to leave if food is scarce or the weather becomes too cold. So in hard winters some of our goldfinches will migrate as far south as Spain.
Because these migrations are triggered by climatic conditions and food supply it’s impossible to predict if or when they will happen.
Goldfinches are very sociable birds. During the summer months, they feed in small flocks, and may even nest in loose colonies. The collective noun for a group of goldfinches is a charm.
During the winter they gather together in much larger roosting flocks of up to 100 birds, offering warmth and protection from predators.
Goldfinches have a long breeding season. Most pairs producing two broods or even 3 each year from June to late July or August.
Courtship starts with the male doing a dance where he sways from side to side, drops his wings to display their yellow banding and serenades the female.
Goldfinches like to build their small, cup-shaped nests generally located towards the end of high tree branches or buried in hedgerows.
Eggs are pale blue and smooth and a typical clutch contains around six eggs. The eggs take up to 2 weeks to incubate with chicks spending a further 2 weeks in the nest before fledging.
Both the male and the female goldfinch share feeding duties. The chicks are fed on a regurgitated paste, made from invertebrates when they are first hatched and moving to seed as they get older.
The Goldfinch In Your Garden
Goldfinches are becoming a more regular garden visitor and they are certainly a welcome one There are a number of things you can do to attract goldfinches to your garden.
We all feel welcome when someone lays out a meal of our favourite food for us, and the goldfinch is no exception.
For the Nyger seeds you will need a special Nyger seed feeder as the seed is so small it just falls out of standard feeder holes.
Sunflower hearts can go on the bird table, and a goldfinch will enjoy picking through standard seed mix and a few mealworms too.
To attract goldfinches try to position feeders high in trees. Like any other bird, the goldfinch will take a couple of weeks to figure out that a new and interesting feeder has arrived in your garden. Be patient, but you might speed the process up by tieing something bright to the top of the feeder to catch their eye.
Goldfinches will happily feed from bird tables but like to have somewhere to perch whilst they wait their turn. So try to position your table close to tall trees that offer plenty of perching potential.
You can feed goldfinches all year round, but extra food will be especially welcome in late spring at the start of the breeding season.
And as always, don’t forget to offer water!
Planting for Goldfinches
As with all birds and other wildlife offering a natural banquet through the right planting is just as important as putting food on your bird table.
Most people will tell you to plant teasels to attract the goldfinch – and yes these are a good idea. But it’s a little known fact that only the males can eat teasel seeds, as they have slightly longer beaks than the female goldfinch.
So to attract goldfinches, you will need other plants with seeds too, here are a few you could try, and as you can see, some of them are definitely for the wild corner of the garden!
- Anise Hyssop
These are native plants and as well as attracting goldfinches they will do a great job of bringing in other wildlife too.
Gardens that naturally attract finches in the breeding season will likely be those that benefit from tall trees or thick hedges.
But goldfinches do make use of nest boxes too.
To attract goldfinches a nestbox should have a very small opening and be located as high up in a tree as you can manage. Remember these birds prefer to stay well away from the ground for nesting.
As with new feeders, you need to be patient with new nest boxes, Any bird would want to take some time to get familiar with a new nest box and the gardens around it before setting up a home there.
Late winter is the best time to place new nest boxes, well before the start of the UK breeding season. But as the goldfinch generally raises at least two broods in a season you could be lucky with a box placed later in the year.
Thanks For Reading
From being a prized cage bird back in the 19th century to one of the most popular visitors to our gardens today the story of European goldfinches is a good illustration of how our attitudes to birds and other wildlife have changed over the years – mostly for the better!
We hope you’ve enjoyed this article and found it a useful introduction to this lovely little bird.
Do you have suggestions or questions about the goldfinch or other wildlife? We would love to hear them – leave us a comment below.