Bird of the Month: Goldfinch -The Toast

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If there’s one thing I like more than I like birds, it’s The Secret History. Imagine my excitement when it was announced in February that Donna Tartt’s new novel would be named after one of my favorite kinds of finch. So in honor of The Goldfinch, which is coming out in a matter of days, October’s bird of the month is THE GOLDFINCH.

If you live in the United States, you’ve almost certainly seen an American goldfinch: they live throughout the country, moving south for the winter and back north for the breeding season. The goldfinch is the state bird of Iowa, New Jersey and Washington. Here’s a male of the species:


This is his winter outfit: a pinkish-brown body and head and a pale yellow throat, with black and white tipped wings. Come summer, he puts on his glad rags and goes in search of a mate. He replaces his muted body feathers with bright yellow ones and adds a glossy black cap. Even his stubby little beak, perfect for winkling seeds out of their shells, changes color, going from dullish pink to bright orange. He looks a completely different bird:


I think his winter plumage is more stylish, but what do I know? The female goldfinches like his summer look. (The females also change their appearance with the seasons, but in less spectacular fashion. As with so many bird species, the male is the sartorial show-off.)

All goldfinch species belong to the genus Carduelis (‘thistle’) and most goldfinch species share a love of thistle-eating. This peculiar predilection has made the bird a symbol of Jesus’s crown of thorns and, by extension, of the crucifixion. Goldfinches flutter and perch in Renaissance Madonna and Child paintings, a bright reminder of the suffering to come. In Federico Barocci’s ‘The Madonna of the Cat’, the infant John the Baptist grasps a goldfinch in his fat hand, waving it above an entranced cat:


You will notice that this goldfinch looks different from the American kind. It is a European goldfinch, the same species that peers through a torn bit of paper on the cover of Donna Tartt’s novel. Her goldfinch is taken from a 17th-century Dutch painting by Carel Fabritius. Also called ‘The Goldfinch,’ it’s one of the favorite paintings of her hero’s mother.


S. Vere Benson, Honorable Secretary of the Bird-Lovers’ League, writes in the pocket Observer’s Book of Birds (1937), that the European goldfinch is ‘one of our smaller Finches, and… perhaps the most handsome in appearance of them all, and very dainty in its ways’. Which is true.

Unlike the American goldfinch, the European goldfinch looks the same all year round, and there’s not much difference between the male and the female. You can best identify the species by its red face mask and the bright yellow bars on its wings. S. Vere Benson describes its call as ‘a high tinkling twitter, reminiscent of Japanese wind-bells. Song, similar and fairy-like.’ Sadly, this song has attracted less benign admirers than S. Vere, and the goldfinch has been a popular caged bird since the Middle Ages. Here’s little Alexandrine Le Normant d’Étiolles, daughter of Madame de Pompadour, with her pet goldfinch:


The composer Vivaldi celebrated the goldfinch song in a kinder way. In his concerto “Il Gardellino”, the flute takes the role of the bird, twittering away above the other instruments. I was dubious about the resemblance at first, but it’s totally there, I promise.

As its name suggests, the European goldfinch does not live in America. It has, however, crossed the Atlantic in the form of the distelfink, a stylized drawing of the bird which appears in Pennsylvanian Dutch folk art. The distelfink is a symbol of happiness, luck and the Pennsylvanian Dutch nation itself. 


[Baptismal Certificate, 1788]

The distelfink is delightful, but I think you’ll agree it’s not nearly as delightful as the real thing:


Donna Tartt has chosen wisely and well. Would you expect any less?

[Images via Wikimedia Commons. The Madonna of the Cat via Federico Barocci, The Madonna of the Cat (‘La Madonna del Gatto’), probably about 1575: © The National Gallery, London]

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