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One of the things I feel I really miss out on when I live in the city are the birds.
The skies above are mostly the domain of urban gulls and wood pigeons. Sometimes there will be the chattering of a magpie in the early hours, or the warbling song of a blackbird at dawn or dusk. Very occasionally, I’ve seen blue tits and even a great tit in the little courtyard outside my flat, which has a few bushes and trees.
The other morning, I heard a little twittering song I don’t usually hear, and was delighted to see two goldfinches flitting about the courtyard. Their beautiful colours brightened my morning, and inspired me to research their folklore for today’s Folkdays post.
Goldfinches have bundles of folk beliefs attached to them, and they also have a very interesting history. They also come with a myriad of different names: one such is a ‘redcap’, referenced in the poem by the same name, above.
At first glance, this name might arise simply from the bird’s tell-tale markings: alongside gold wing stripes and a black collar, males goldfinches also sport a striking red mask. Yet a ‘red cap’ is also the name of a kind of mischievous goblin in Northumbrian folklore. These birds do resemble cheeky sprites in their playful behaviour: the collective noun for them is sometimes ‘a troubling’, more commonly ‘a charm’. In Irish folk belief, goldfinches can be found wherever fairies have their homes, furthering this connection.
Other names arise from this red mask: the Irish name for the goldfinch is lasair choille, which translates as ‘flame of the forest’. Elsewhere it has been known as the ‘proud tailor’, for its wonderful patchwork appearance. The colours of the goldfinch’s plumage is the source of a whole other well of folk belief. As with other red-feathered birds like the robin, the goldfinch is thought to have been stained by the blood of Jesus, when the bird plucked a thistle from Christ’s crown of thorns in pity of his suffering. The Anglo-Saxon name thisteltuige, translating as ‘thistle-tweaker’ describes the bird’s favoured diet, but could also be seen as a reference to this belief.
The gold on the goldfinch’s wings gives the bird connotations of wealth and prosperity. It is believed that if a young girl dreams of a goldfinch, she would marry into wealth. This is perhaps also the inspiration for the following verse from the song ‘The Wedding of Cock Robin and Jenny Wren’:
“Oh, then,” says Parson Rook,
“Who gives this maid away?”
“I do,”says the Goldfinch,
“And her fortune I will pay…”
Gold was also believed by early civilisations to hold curative properties, and thus the goldfinch has also become a symbol of health and a protection against illness. Leonardo di Vinci wrote of the bird:
‘The gold-finch is a bird of which it is related that, when it is carried into the presence of a sick person, if the sick man is going to die, the bird turns away its head and never looks at him; but if the sick man is to be saved the bird never loses sight of him but is the cause of curing him of all his sickness.’
Today, while we acknowledge that the presence of a goldfinch will not cure physical ills, it is true that watching a flock of these cheery little birds can certainly improve mental and emotional wellness. Perhaps that, then, is their ‘charm’. But this collective noun comes not in a spiritual or curative sense, but rather in reference to their song.
While their might be some connection between ‘charm’ and the Latin camina (meaning ‘song’), there is a clearer link to be seen in the Old English c’irm (or the Middle English chirme), which speaks of the mingled clamour of several chattering songs. This ‘blended tinkling’ certainly captures the aural effect created by a flock of goldfinches.
Goldfinches have been valued for their song, as well as their colourful plumage, for many years. These birds were caught and caged almost to extinction by 19th century bird trappers. Indeed, the French name for a bird-ringer comes from the word for goldfinch, chardonerret. Birds were lured into cages by ‘stales’, stuffed skins made to resemble birds, or by live ‘call-birds’. Sometimes branches were smeared with ‘bird lime’, a sticky gum made from boiled mistletoe berries, to ensnare perched birds. The cruelty continued, however, as captive goldfinches were sometimes blinded with hot needles, to encourage them to sing more continually by removing distractions. Thomas Hardy wrote about this barbaric practice in his poem, ‘The Blinded Bird’:
‘Blinded ere yet a-wing
By the red-hot needle thou,
I stand and wonder how
So zestfully thou canst sing!’
Thankfully, such cruelty is now banned, and the protection and preservation of goldfinches was one of the first aims of the Society for the Protection of Birds, the predecessor to the RSPB. Now, goldfinches can be admired for their colours and their song in the wild, happy in their freedom (although willing to come close for a handful of sunflower seeds!)
For this, I am as gaillard as a goldfynch in the shawe — a description given to the cook in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, meaning ‘as merry as a goldfinch in the woods’.
Photo by Jim Cole.
Lots of lovely articles about goldfinches out there! The ones I’ve read and would recommend are:
- A Charm of Goldfinches by Roaringwater Journal
- Goldfinch – Salvation, Freedom, and Wealth by Daniel Mackie
- New Garden Visitors – Gossiping Goldfinches and Stunning Siskins! by Naturalist Dara
- The goldfinch: symbol of salvation yet thrice-cursed, ‘enjailed in pitiless wire’ by That’s How The Light Gets In
- An Unkindness of Ravens: A Book of Collective Nouns by Chloe Rhodes
- Birds Britannica by Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey
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