Here in the UK, we have some lovely birds then we have some stunning birds and the European goldfinch is definitely on the list of the gorgeous ones. Sure it might not be as bright as the American goldfinch, which really does live up to its name, but with that eye catching red face and gold wing stripes, it is a bird that demands to be noticed. It is also a good aviary bird that is one of the easiest species to keep and breed.
The European goldfinch in the wild
As the name suggests, the European goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis) isn’t just a British bird – in fact, it isn’t even just a European one! There are some 10 different subspecies of the bird and they are found from northern Africa, across Europe and into central Asia as well as having been introduced to the USA, Bermuda, Uruguay, Australia and New Zealand.
Some of the subspecies can look quite different from the bird we are most familiar with here in the UK and that we all love to try to snap photos of in the garden, the caniceps subspecies from India, for instant, lacks the white on its head.
In colder parts of its range, the goldfinch is migratory and can even move around an area if it needs to due to the weather. They favour open lowlands that are partially wooded as well as weedy meadows, plantations and even grasslands. They also live in parks and gardens so are common visitors to garden bird feeders.
One of the distinctive features about the bird, apart from its red face, is the very pointed beak and this leads to one of its nicknames, the thistle finch. The beak is designed to probe thistle blossoms for seeds as this is one of their favourite foods. The beak is also horn coloured and turns black at the tip during winter.
The goldfinch has a black head and nape of the neck while forehead and throat are red. The cheeks and underside are white while the back is a chestnut shade with black and yellow markings on the wings. The tail is black and white with pink-brown legs. Sexing the bird is tricky but most breeders use the amount of red on the head – if it extends beyond the eyes, then the bird is a male but in line or before the eyes and it is a female. Plus, only male birds sing.
There are a number of mutations in captivity including agate, albino, eumo, Isabel, opal, pearl, silver, white and yellow. For some good pictures of what the different mutations look like, check this page.
The goldfinch call is a pleasant song that sounds a lot like that of the canary. The male birds tend to sing from around the end of February until around mid-July, the typical breeding season and again from September to December.
Due to their name, people often think the European and American goldfinch are closely related but this isn’t the case. The European goldfinch is a member of the Carduelis genus, along with the Citril and Corsican finch.
The American goldfinch is part of the Spinus genus with birds such as the Eurasian siskin and the red siskin. Both groups are part of the larger subfamily Cardeulinae and the Fringillidae family. But they are more like second cousins than close relatives.
Keeping the European goldfinch
European goldfinch are said to be one of the easiest British birds to start keeping. They do come under the regulations about captivity breeding so birds need to be correctly ringed in order for them to be sold.
All native British Birds must have the correct rings on them to show they are captive bred. Otherwise, it is against the law to sell them – although you could give them away. Let’s keep everyone on the right side of things and protect our hobby1
They can also hybridise with other birds, including the canary. Offspring from this pairing result in mules – birds that look like a goldfinch, sing like canaries but are infertile and cannot breed.
While thistle is a big favourite, there are also special seed mixes available for goldfinches and they will enjoy a range of foreign finch style mixes. Niger seed is another favourite, though this is often in most quality finch mix. Offering millet spray will also be a popular option for them.
Greens, such as kale and spinach, as well as weeds such as dandelion will be eaten by most birds and egg food should also be offers. Small live insects are often enjoyed and some breeders offer softbill pellets. More protein rich foods such as live food is important around breeding season. They will also take cuttlefish, grit or calcium blocks, depending on the bird.
While some breeders manage to breed goldfinch in cages, most seem to find an aviary is a better environment. These birds can be active and need a bit of space as well as being a bit stroppy at time – they will chase bigger birds from feeders!
Come breeding time, the goldfinch nest will often be built in a canary nest pan. Add some greenery, real or fake, around it to make the illusion that the nest is in a tree. They will need room above the nest to feed the young. To this, the birds will add soft grasses, coconut fibres, feathers or even moss if available. Eggs are pale blue-green with spots and one is laid each day.
There are usually 3-7 eggs and the incubation is done by the hen, with the cock bird feeding her on the nest. The chicks hatch at around 12-14 days and are fed by both parents, fledging at around 14 days old. They will need to be ringed around 5-6 days to comply with legislation.
Birds are weaned at around 4 weeks old and their first moult take place around the age of four months.
A great British species
The goldfinch is one of my favourite British birds to see in the garden and also one of the first ‘British’ birds I saw in captivity. I was instantly fascinated at the idea of having one of these pairs in my aviary and I did for a while. It is a species I plan to go back to as soon as I get a chance!