Saturday, March 05, 2011


There are a lot of goldfinches in and around Greytown. Indeed, I think they could be the most numerous of birds around here, nothwithstanding sparrows have had something of a comeback this summer. Soon the finches will be flocking for the winter and “charms” of over a hundred goldfinches twittering about the district will be quite common. With their bright red faces and gold wing bars they flutter merrily from plant to plant, often hanging upside down to extract seeds.

The natural range of the goldfinch is Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and Western Asia. Their commonest European name of thistlefinch has been gained because they are particularly fond of the seeds of thistles, particularly the sow thistle.

They were introduced into New Zealand in the 1860s along with other European birds and are probably now more numerous here than in Europe. They were also introduced into Argentina, Bermuda and Australia.
The goldfinch has figured very large in European folklore and the earliest English literature. The cook in Chaucer’s Canterbury tales was described as being “as merry as a goldfinch in the woods” — gaillard he was as a goldfynch in the shawe.

Because of their liking for thistles, goldfinches were adopted by Renaissance artists to symbolise the Passion of Christ. In Baroccio’s ‘Holy Family’ a goldfinch is held in the hand of St John who holds it high out of reach of an interested cat. In Cima’s ‘Madonna and Child’, a goldfinch flutters in the hand of the Christ Child.

Recently on the NZ Birding news group a birder from the UK was asking birders here if they had noticed any evolutionary changes to the birds introduced into NZ from Europe, considering that these birds have now been here for about 150 years.

It is the classic Darwinian scenario, following the story of the finches on the Galapagos Islands which were so instrumental in formulating his theory of evolution. A very small number of birds, carrying just a portion of the species genetic potential will over time change and radiate to fill the ecological niches which we may offer. Isolated from their parent birds, unlike Australian introduced birds, these birds will in time become truly our own and probably quite different from their European counterparts.

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