Goldfinch - Bird Song

05 June 2020 | Posted in James Duncan , Bird Song
Goldfinch - Bird Song
Goldfinch © Roger Wilmshurst

By James Duncan

Learning and Engagement Officer

In this series of blogs I'm exploring the wonderful world of bird song (with some calls thrown in for good measure!) There's surely little more calming to human ears than the annual serenade of spring song. Each day, prior to the sun's appearance above the horizon, birds begin to advertise their presence, demonstrating their strength and ability in song. This serves not only to attract a mate but also to deter rivals. As you wake in the morning, during these times of increased isolation, take a moment to notice the birds who break the morning silence, the Robin, the Blackbird and perhaps the Song Thrush. Enjoy the widening chorus as Wren, Starling, Chaffinch and Dunnock join in. The complexities of bird song may not be easy to get to grips with, but why not take the time to learn? The satisfaction to be gained from identifying birds by song (and calls) really can't be overemphasised - it's truly a window into another world.

9# Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis)

Next up, the magnificent Goldfinch, a delicate richly-coloured bird and one of our most enchanting garden inhabitants. The collective noun for a flock of Goldfinches may be one of the most delightful of all, a 'charm' - this likely relates to an Old English meaning derived from the sounds they produce. The Goldfinch is one of our smallest resident Finches, wholly unmistakable in adult form with its red 'face', sandy-brown body, pied plumage and beautiful golden-yellow wing flashes. Should you happen to observe them flying by, the broad golden wing bars will be surprisingly pronounced, truly radiant in strong light. Flocks are utterly captivating to both see and hear and are now a common sight across Britain, so much so that we probably take them a little for granted. Rewind a hundred years or so and this wasn't the case, for the Goldfinch's desirability as a cage bird made it a significant target for capture - read about that in this blog. They may occupy almost any habitat, other than the highest uplands, often breeding in loose colonies where there's an abundance of scattered trees and small bushes. Their mobile and highly social nature has them constantly on the move, always looking for new feeding opportunities. Keep your eyes peeled for them feeding on or near the ground, carefully extracting seeds from members of the composite 'Daisy' family, Asteraceae.

The beautiful Goldfinch has really rather a strong disposition toward warmer climates - traditionally the vast majority would have flown south in winter, looking to bask in the favourable conditions of south-west Europe. They display little preference for a rigid adherence to a single overwintering ground, their nomadic nature a factor that influences their current status as a partial migrant - the severity of the winter will also play a significant role in their migratory decisions. It seems the females may be more likely to vacate our shores, leaving the males to suffer the colder spells, though the one's that do will almost certainly have their pick of breeding territories come spring. In days gone by an old fashioned garden banquet of peanuts and bread may well have driven overwintering 'goldies' to starvation, but the now widespread feeding of both nyger seed and sunflower hearts has them more than covered. Their fine 'tweezer-like' bills are ideal for exploiting such a resource, one of the few birds able to do so. Away from the gardens, their Latin naming of Carduelis refers to a classic food plant, the thistle (Carduus), explaining the common Anglo-Saxon vernacular of 'Thistle Finch.' Funnily enough, the shorter bills of the females make it a struggle to prise seeds from particularly narrow seed-heads, such as those of teasels, and it's generally only the males who find this easy.

Today it's likely you'll hear Goldfinches almost anywhere you go, for their light, bouncing flight and jovial flight calls are often the first indicator of their presence - these may be given all year round. Prior to breeding, male Goldfinches may undertake a specific breeding display in order to attract the attentions of a female. This often involves the male 'drooping' his wings and pivoting gently from side to side as if theatrically taking to the stage. The song is usually delivered from the top of a small tree, in typical 'finch-style' and although restrained, may carry some distance. They do have a habit of incorporating parts of the song into their flight calls, so they may sound surprisingly musical when passing overhead.  

Listen to the song in this video -

Ultimately, the supremely pleasurable vocalisations of the Goldfinch are a real soundtrack to British summer. The ever cheerful song is always delivered at a frenetic pace, though the individual phrases can really vary in length, with some lasting less than a second and others lasting more than five. There's real variety, and complexity, making it incredibly difficult to attempt any kind of literal translation. The babbling, excitable nature of the song has an organic, liquid fluidity, sounding like somebody trying to talk at a crazy speed - it's a real outpouring of notes. There is perhaps no other bird song that subscribes to adjectives such as 'tinkling' or 'twittering' any better. The diversity of notes is mind-boggling, the speed of delivery making it difficult to isolate individual phrases. It may be silky, sweet, glassy, mellow, slurred, rasping, buzzy, whistly or rattly - it's a real assortment, though some of the rattling trills show a similarity to those of the Wren and to its close relation, the Greenfinch, with whom it shares similar extended 'wheezing' notes. It should, however, be noted that Goldfinch song tends to seem as if on 'fast forward' in comparison, with a markedly different tempo.  

Listen to an extended version of the song below -

One of the things that makes typical Goldfinch calls distinctive is they're actually always contained within the composition of the song. Flocks may often deliver these calls in unison. Though single and double notes are uttered regularly amongst feeding flocks and by birds in flight, it's the common incorporation of a distinct, tinkling, tri-syllabic phrase that's by far the most memorable. It might perhaps be transliterated as something like "tik-a-wik" and has a 'whip-like' bouncing quality, sometimes seeming remarkably reminiscent of an extremely high-pitched 'wobble board.' It's this call that makes Goldfinches flying overheard extremely noticeable once learnt. 

Listen to this call below - 

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