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Waiting for the golden ones

Finches are frequent visitors to the backyard feeder, but goldfinches are a rare sight.

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I suppose it might be called "goldfinch envy." It's not terribly serious, but recently I find myself asking people if they get goldfinches in their garden.

I should explain. I live in Glasgow, Scotland. So if we were to encounter a goldfinch, it would be the irresistible European type Carduelis carduelis. This diminutive bird is a stunner colorwise. It is not just canary yellow and black like some goldfinches. Its head, starting from the front, is bright red – a brilliant scarlet mask sometimes called a "blaze" – then farther back it has white cheeks and then a black crown and side-stripes. Its black wings have a wide, bright yellow bar on them. Its back is brown, its breast is buff, and its belly white. No wonder it is a favorite of photographers, artists, and birdwatchers.

My first goldfinch-awareness was in the 1970s, country-living in Yorkshire (England). I vividly recall more than once driving to the nearest small town and seeing a sudden upflight of dozens of goldfinches from a hedgerow: a wonderful sight.

Later I learned that flocking is a goldfinch habit – they benefit from feeding gregariously – and that someone had come up with a collective noun to describe the phenomenon: They'd called it a "charm." It turns out that this appropriate term is not a recent invention. It can be found in the late 15th-century "Boke of St Albans," as one item in a long list of collective nouns for animals and birds. There it is: "a cherme of goldfynches."


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