By Jim Poling Sr.
I am standing at the kitchen window, sipping morning coffee, when he arrives.
He is but a tiny bright flash flitting by, nothing spectacular or unusual on a clear and sunny morning. But when he lands on one of the feeders, he reveals his full golden glory and my view of the world brightens.
He is the Messenger, this spring’s first golden finch and his message is that brighter days are ahead.
His body is small but it is an explosion of yellow optimism reminding us to celebrate the joys of life. His twitters and warbles broadcast hope, guidance, comfort.
The goldfinch is a spirit bird that has guided human thinking in many parts of the world for centuries. It has inspired poetry, novels and films and is estimated to have been a central figure in hundreds of paintings during the Renaissance.
Goldfinch numbers in North America are in the tens of millions; fewer in Europe where they have been trapped and sold for pets.
They were extremely popular as pets in England and Holland. People there often chained them in cages and taught them the trick of drawing water from a glass. The glass was placed below a perch and the bird was taught to lower a thimble-sized cup into the glass and pull it back up.
They also were captured and used in a practice called Vinkensport, Dutch for “finch sport.” In a Vinkensport contest, cages containing one finch are lined up on a street and timed for how many calls each finch makes in one hour. The finch making the most calls is the winner.
The sport has been condemned because of tactics used to make the birds sing more. In early times they were blinded with hot needles to eliminate visual distractions and encourage them to sing more.
The sport remains popular today in some European locations where the finches are kept in small, dark boxes, again to discourage distractions.
Fortunately, goldfinches are well protected in North America and parts of Europe. Our Migratory Birds Convention Act prohibits capturing, trading, transporting or killing these birds. In the UK, they are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act.
In earlier times the goldfinch was seen as more than a bright and happy sight on a branch or a bird feeder. Medieval Christians believed the European goldfinch acquired blood red feathers on its face when it attempted to remove the crown of thorns from the crucified Christ.
That belief no doubt is enhanced by the fact that goldfinches are very adept at pushing aside prickly thistles to get at thistle seeds, a staple food of the European goldfinch.
Ancient Greeks regarded thistles as curative and the goldfinch became to be seen as a symbol for good health. One ancient belief was that if a goldfinch turned its head to the left in the presence of a sick person, that person was destined to die.
Goldfinches themselves don’t have long lifespans. Their typical lifespan is two to four years in the wild, nine years in captivity.
Paying close attention to your bird feeders can help goldfinches and other birds live out their typical lifespans.
Salmonellosis is a common and fatal bird disease that can be spread from bird feeders. It is caused by a bacteria found in bird droppings and easily transmitted in tray type feeders or on the ground below feeders where seed has fallen. Experts say using tube feeders helps reduce transmission and that all feeders should be cleaned weekly with a 10-per-cent bleach solution.
This spring a salmonella outbreak has been killing finches and pine siskins along the U.S. west coast.
Also, care needs to be taken about what you put in goldfinch feeders. They are fussy eaters; they are vegetarians, the only bird known not to eat bugs. They love Nyjer seed because it contains nutritious oil, which means it is easily spoiled.
Nyjer seed needs to be stored in climate-controlled conditions – in temperatures below 80 degrees Fahrenheit. The experts suggest buying Nyjer seed in small quantities and from a dealer known to have rapid turnover of seed.
Looking after our goldfinch visitors is important. Without them, our world would be a darker, more pessimistic place.