European Goldfinch

The European Goldfinch, Carduelis carduelis, is an iconic bird, widely recognized. Goldfinches were popular pets in Europe in the past, as they could be taught tricks like drawing water from a bowl with a miniature bucket, ring bells, and pull miniature carts. In the 19th century thousands of goldfinches were caught and sold as caged birds in the United Kingdom. The famous 1654 painting by Carel Fabritius depicts a trained goldfinch sitting on its feeder, chained by its foot. An icon, the artwork gave rise to the epic novel about the painting.

Attractive birds, with a red face, black and white head, a light tan back, white belly, and black and yellow wings, goldfinches have a pleasant silvery twittering song.

Native across Europe to western Central Asia, the European Goldfinch has been  introduced into the U.S., South America, Australia, and New Zealand. It is resident in the milder areas of its range, but may migrate south from colder regions.

The goldfinches’ preferred food is small seeds, like those of thistle, dandelion, and grass. While they almost exclusively eat seeds, the birds will take insects when raising young, as the offspring need protein. Goldfinches forage by hovering, moving from plant to plant, the stout and very pointed bill allowing the birds to extract the seeds from their coverings.

The goldfinch breeds in in loose colonies in forested areas, orchards, parks, and gardens, often near human habitation. During breeding season in the spring when thistles are blooming, the female, toiling alone but accompanied by the male, builds a deep nest in about a week and anchors it to a branch with spider silk. Made of moss, grass, and hair, the nest is often lined with thistle fluff as well as wool, fur and feathers. Five or six bluish eggs are laid, incubated by the female alone while the male feeds her. About two weeks later the young hatch and are fed by the parents for another week. Goldfinches typically raise two broods per season, occasionally three.

The European Goldfinch was significant in European art. Nearly 500 devotional paintings, mostly Italian, typically pictured a goldfinch with the Madonna and Child. In religious art, the red feathers of the goldfinch’s face was said to have come from the blood of Christ’s crown when the bird tried to pull a thorn from it and was stained by blood.