Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Trip to England, Part 6: A Charm of Finches

Finches are familiar feathered friends in Seattle, what with house finches frequenting the feeder and the American goldfinch posing as the state bird of Washington. They're part of a big family that includes about 136 species of finch, of which I managed to see, oh, a whopping four while in England. And one of them wasn't even a true finch.

What I lacked in quantity of finches, though, was made up for in quality because I met one of the finest finches going: the European goldfinch, a beautiful bird with a thrilling, trilling song that's more melodious than the squeaky whistles and sparrowlike chirps of the American goldfinch's song. When I first heard one belting out a tune from atop a TV aerial in Wells, I could understand why this pretty bird was once captured in droves for the caged-bird trade (a practice that is fortunately now banned).

The second finch I encountered was practically posing for greeting cards: He was perched on a lichen-dappled ledge on a wall in the garden of the Bishop's Palace in Wells, happily warbling away. He was quite a cheeky little fellow, too, turning around to face and study me with the same intensity I was directing toward him.

Like their American cousins, European goldfinches are nearly complete vegetarians, living on seeds and berries and displaying a strong preference for thistle seeds.

While researching this species, I found a diagram showing how this little bird was just as clever as a raven when it came to retrieving food on the end of a line. Alaskan ravens wowed people when they demonstrated that they could pull up a fishing line from a hole in the ice by tugging on the line, then stepping on the drawn-up portion to keep it in place before reaching down and pulling up more of the line until it finally landed the fish. European goldfinches in captivity demonstrated that they can use the same technique to pull up a string and retrieve a treat tied to its end.

Later, I learned that one of the many nicknames for the European goldfinch is "Draw-water." Such a puzzling name; I didn't think I'd ever figure out its origin. But then I came across a brief reference that linked it to a trick taught to captive goldfinches: drawing their own water from a cup using a thimble on a chain.

It has many other colorful  nicknames, as well. In various places it's known as a goldspink, thistle finch, King Harry, red-cap, proud tailor, fool's coat, sheriff's man, sweet William, and flame-of-the-wood.

As for the other species: a pair of greenfinches appeared conveniently close up, perching on a grill right outside the window, but inconveniently when my camera was not handy, so the only picture I got was of a distant greenfinch on a wire.

While walking to the ancient chapel of St. Peter's-on-the-Wall in Bradwell-on-Sea, along a Roman road that has been trodden by warriors and pilgrims for hundreds of years (and birders in more recent ones), I spotted a chaffinch.

This is the finch that isn't a finch--it appears it was once lumped in with the finches, much like Darwin's famous finches (which aren't finches), but is actually, per one bird book, "a link between the insectivorous songbirds and the more specialized [true] finches."

Now it has its own family, one that includes another common English bird of garden and hedgerow, the brambling.

On that same walk, in reverse, this little bird presented itself, and I can only assume it's the female of a finch (true or false) although it could be a sparrow of some sort.

Technically this kind of small, dusky bird is called an LBJ, or "little brown job," in the United States. But I was tired after the walking and exploring and beachcombing in between spotting the chaffinch and this bird, so I decided I was finished with finches (bad birder).


  1. I can't help you with the mystery finch (I'm a very bad birder indeed) but I share your love of the goldfinch.They are such lovely birds. Feeding birds over winter is very popular now in the UK, and there are whole industries given over to bird feeders and bird food. Goldfinches have their very own feeders and food (nyjer seed). And yes, I have a special goldfinch feeder. Does this happen in the States?

  2. Yes indeed! Bird feeding is wildly popular here in the states. I guess since we've taken over so much of their habitat it's the least we can do! And yep, there are special goldfinch feeders that use nyjer seed. I've never seen a goldfinch in my garden or immediate neighborhood but they're up in the local park a few blocks away (BIG park--zoo and park sprawling over 100+ acres) so I haven't put in a nyjer feeder as I don't think the goldfinches would ever find it.