European goldfinch

The European goldfinch or more simply the goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis), is a small bird in the finch family that is indigenous to Europe, North Africa and western and central Asia. It has been added to other areas, including New Zealand, Australia and Uruguay.

Goldfinch Males

The male has a red face and a black and white head. The back and sides are a light brownish colour or chestnut brown. The black wings possess a broad yellow bar. The tail is black, and the bottom is white.

Goldfinch Females

Males and females are very alike, but females have a slightly less red area on the face.
The goldfinch is often portrayed in Italian renaissance portraits of the Madonna and Child.

European goldfinch History and Classification

The European goldfinch was one of several birds reported and represented by Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner in his Historiae animalium of 1555. The earliest formal description was by Carl Linnaeus in the 10th edition of his Systema Naturae written in 1758.

He submitted the binomial name, Fringilla Carduelis. Carduelis is the Latin term for ‘goldfinch’. The European goldfinch is now set in the family Carduelis introduced by the French zoologist Mathurin Jacques Brisson in the year 1760 by tautonomy based on Linneus’s specific epithet.

european goldfinches beautiful birds

Current molecular genetic examinations have revealed that the European goldfinch is intimately related to the citril finch (Carduelis citrinella) and the Corsican finch (Carduelis corsicana).

The English term ‘goldfinch’ was employed in the second half of the 14th century by Geoffrey Chaucer in his incomplete The Cook’s Tale: “Gaillard he was as goldfynch in the shawe (Gaily dressed he was as is a goldfinch in the woods)”.

European goldfinch Subspecies

The subspecies of the European goldfinch are separated into two major collections.

Carduelis (black-crowned) group

  • East European goldfinch (C. c. balcanica) Sachtleben, 1919 – the Balkans, Crete, Greece and north-western Turkey
  • East Caspian goldfinch (C. c. brevirostris) Zarudny, 1889 – northern Iran to eastern Turkey
  • British goldfinch (C. c. Britannica) (Hartert, 1903) – the British Isles, the Channel Islands, the western Netherlands to north-western France
  • Northern European goldfinch (C. c. carduelis) (Linnaeus, 1758) – most of the European mainland, south Scandinavia
  • Caucasian goldfinch (C. c. colchica) Koudashev, 1915 – the Northern Caucasus to the Crimean Peninsula and north-eastern Turkey
  • West Siberian goldfinch (C. c. frigoris) Wolters, 1953 – western Siberia
    Southeastern European goldfinch (C. c. niediecki) Reichenow, 1907 –Egypt to Asia Minor, southeastern Europe (Rhodes, Karpathos, Cyprus), northern Iraq, north-eastern Africa, southwestern Iran
  • Southwestern European goldfinch (C. c. parva) Tschusi, 1901 – the Atlantic Macaronesic islands (the Canary Islands, Madeira), southern France, Iberian Peninsula, the Balearic Islands and north-western Africa
  • Central Mediterranean goldfinch (C. c. tschusii) Arrigoni degli Oddi, 1902 – Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily
  • Southern Ukraine goldfinch (C. c. volgensis) Buturlin, 1906 – southern Ukraine, north-western Kazakhstan and southwestern Russia

european goldfinches beautiful birds

Caniceps (grey-headed) group

  • grey-crowned goldfinch (C. c. caniceps) Vigors, 1831 – south-central Asia ( Kashmir to Nepal and west Tibet – the western Himalayas)
  • grey-headed goldfinch (C. c. paropanisi) Kollibay, 1910 – the west Himalaya to Afghanistan and Tian Shan Mountains
  • Central Asian goldfinch (C. c. subulata) (Gloger, 1833) – Lake Baikal to south-central Siberia and north-western Mongolia
  • C. c. ultima Koelz, 1949 – southern Iran

European Goldfinch Description

The typical European goldfinch is 12–13 cm (4.7–5.1 in) in length with a wingspan of 21–25 cm (8.3–9.8 in) plus a weight of 14 to 19 g (0.49 to 0.67 oz). The sexes are alike, with a red face, black and white head, warm brown upperparts, white underparts with light brown flanks and breast spots, and black and yellow wings.

On closer examination, male European goldfinches can frequently be identified by a larger, darker red mask that reaches just behind the eye. The shoulder feathers are black, and they are brown on the female.

In females, the red face does not continue past the eye. The ivory-coloured bill is long and sharp, and the tail is forked. Goldfinches in breeding status have a white bill, with a greyish or blackish mark at the point for the rest of the year.

european goldfinches beautiful birds

Immature goldfinches have a plain head and a greyer back but are evident due to the yellow wing band. Birds in central Asia (the caniceps collection) have a plain grey head behind the red face, lacking the black and white head decoration of European and western Asian birds.

After the breeding period, adults moult with some birds beginning in July and others not finishing their moult until November. After moult birds look less colourful until the tips of the recently grown feathers wear away.

European Goldfinch Song, Call and Singing

The song is a delightful silvery twittering. The call is a melodic tickeLIT. The song is a cheerful tinkling assortment of trills and twitters, but always involving the tri-syllabic call phrase or a teLLIT-teLLIT-teLLIT.

European goldfinch Distribution and Habitat

european goldfinch habitats map
European Goldfinch habitats and distribution map. Green: Native areas, Orange: Introduced areas

The European goldfinch is endemic to Europe, North Africa, and western and central Asia. It is located in open, partly wooded lowlands and is a dweller in the milder west of its area, but migrates from colder areas. It will also make local flights, even in the west, to avoid bad weather. It has been introduced to many regions of the world.

It was introduced to Canada, Mexico, Peru, Argentina, the United States, Chile, the Falkland Islands, Brazil, South Africa, Australia, Uruguay, and New Zealand in the 19th century. Their populations quickly developed, and their range expanded considerably.

In Australia, all now occur from Brisbane to the Eyre Peninsula and expand throughout New Zealand. In the United States, they have grown established in the westerly Great Lakes area.

European goldfinch Behaviour and ecology

european goldfinches beautiful birds

Breeding

The nest is built completely by the female and is usually completed within a week. The male follows the female but does not contribute. The nest is neat and small and is generally located several metres above the ground, covered by leaves in the twigs at the tip of a swaying branch.

It is composed of mosses and lichens and padded with plant down such as that from thistles. It is connected to the twigs of the tree by spider silk. A deep cup stops the loss of eggs in windy weather. Starting in a couple of days after the nest’s completion, the eggs are deposited in the early morning at daily periods. The clutch is typically 4-6 eggs, and are whitish with reddish-brown speckles.

They have a sleek surface and are somewhat glossy. The standard size is 17.3 mm × 13.0 mm (0.68 in × 0.51 in) with an estimated weight of 1.53 g (0.054 oz). The eggs are incubated for 11–13 days by the female Gold Finch, which is fed by the male. The chicks are fed and nurtured by both parents.

Initially, they receive a blend of seeds and insects, but as they grow the balance of insect material diminishes. For the first 7–9 days, the young are looked after by the female. The nestlings fledge 13–18 days after hatching out of the eggs. The juvenile birds are fed by both parents for an additional 7–9 days. The parents almost always raise two broods each year and irregularly three.

european goldfinches beautiful birds

European goldfinch Feeding & Diet

The European goldfinch’s favoured food is small seeds such as thistles (the Latin name from Carduus, various thistles) and teasels. Still, insects are also used when feeding young. It also frequently visits bird feeders in winter. In the wintertime, European goldfinches crowd together to form flocks of up to 40, occasionally more.

European goldfinches are drawn to back gardens in Europe and North America by birdfeeders holding niger (commercially described as nyjer) seed. This seed of an annual plant from Africa is small and contains a high amount of oils. Special polycarbonate feeders with little oval slits at which the European goldfinches feed are sometimes employed. They love beige, sunflower hearts seeds.

Relationships with humans

madonna of the goldfinch by raphael c –
Madonna of the Goldfinch by Raphael, c. 1505–6
The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius, 1654
The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius, 1654. Historic Bird Painting

European goldfinches are usually kept and bred in captivity worldwide because of their unique appearance and charming song. Suppose European goldfinches are kept with domestic canaries, in that situation, they tend to forget their native and original song and call in favour of their cagemates’ songs.

This is considered objectionable, as it detracts from the attraction of keeping European goldfinches. In Great Britain throughout the 19th century, many thousands of European goldfinches were caught each year to be sold as cage birds.

One of the Royal Society’s earliest campaigns for the Protection of Birds was conducted against this trade. Wildlife conservation endeavours to limit bird trapping and the removal of the open space habitats of European goldfinches.

Steglitz, a borough of the German capital of Berlin is titled after the European goldfinch. The surname of Goldspink is based on the Scots term for the European goldfinch.

Christian symbolism

Because of the thistle seeds, it feeds on, the European goldfinch is linked with Christ’s Passion and his crown of thorns in the religion Christian symbolism and mythology. The European goldfinch, appearing in the Madonna and Christ child’s paintings, represents the premonition Jesus and Mary had of the Crucifixion.

Cases include the Madonna del cardellino or Madonna of the Goldfinch, painted by the Italian Renaissance painter Raphael in about 1505–6, in which John the Baptist gives a European goldfinch to Christ in a prediction of his future.

In Barocci’s Holy Family, a European goldfinch is carried in the hand of John the Baptist, who holds it out of reach of an enthusiastic cat. In Cima da Conegliano’s Madonna and Child, a European goldfinch moves about in Christ boy’s hand. It is also an emblem of endurance, persistence and fruitfulness.

Because it symbolises the Passion, the European goldfinch is deemed a “saviour” bird. It may be portrayed with the common housefly (which symbolises sin and disease). The European goldfinch is also affiliated with Saint Jerome and appears in some depictions of him.

european goldfinches beautiful birds

Depictions in art

Antonio Vivaldi produced a Concerto in D major for Flute “Il Gardellino” (RV 428, Op. 10 No. 3). The singing of the European goldfinch is emulated by a flute. An unknown Italian Neapolitan poem titled Il Cardellino was put to song by Saverio Mercadante and sung by Jose Carreras.

The beautiful European goldfinches, with their “wanton freak” and “yellow flutterings”, are amongst the numerous natural “luxuries” that delight the mouthpiece of John Keats’ poem ‘I stood tip-toe upon a little hill…’ (1816).

In the poem and writing The Great Hunger by Patrick Kavanagh, the European goldfinch is one of the rare sights of beauty in the life of an ageing Irish farmer and worker:

The goldfinches on the railway paling were worth looking at
A man might imagine then.
Himself in Brazil and these birds the birds of paradise

Donna Tartt’s novel and book The Goldfinch gained the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. A turning point in the plot happens when the narrator, Theo, sees his mother’s beloved painting, Carel Fabritius’s The Goldfinch, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Further Reading

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