Suddenly, summer, such as it has been, is in retreat and autumn is taking steps to take over on this first week of September. Already, as mentioned last week, the trees are showing distinct signs of the waning summer. As ever, horse chestnuts are taking the lead with their crowns beginning to glow with prominent signs of red and the brambles too are turning from green to red. Indeed, some are even ripening and already I have seen bramble pickers exploring local hedgerows. Thus colours in the trees and shrubs with growing numbers of berries and haws evident, are intensifying albeit that it will probably be some weeks before we will be able to feast upon autumn's full, blazing glory and indeed feast avidly on bramble pie!
But colour in both shape and sonic form has suddenly become a feature here as a new kind of music is to be heard to challenge the voices of masters robin and wren. The new sound is akin to a whispered conversation between a substantial gathering of confiding characters, with which I am very familiar. They literally do charm us with their versatile voices and their remarkable colouration, which in some parts of the country has them rejoicing in the colloquial name, 'seven coloured linnets'! The new kids on the block are, of course, goldfinches.
Down the centuries, these delightful little birds have enjoyed something of a chequered history. Once upon a time they were lauded by European artists and as long ago as the thirteenth century the goldfinch appears in English art although it was the French and Italian artists who made a feature of goldfinches in devotional paintings. Indeed some three quarters of all devotional paintings produced in France and Italy during following centuries featured goldfinches, albeit perhaps surreptitiously. They were not the principal subjects of these works of art but almost by inference as a kind of trademark of such devotional art.
I can understand why the goldfinch attracted such attention. Apart from their remarkable colour combinations - the yellow or gold flashes on their wings and their prominent red faces in particular - goldfinches are confiding and vocal. Always pleasant to hear, whether whispering, as they are wont to do ... a tinkling sound sometimes said to be reminiscent of Chinese bells, or in full voice belting out strings of deliciously, mainly mellow notes - the sweetest of music. Curiously enough, whilst at present, I inevitably find myself coupling them with the very evident robins and wrens, I am not alone!
The ancient tradition that links the robin and the wren, goes back many centuries and even has them marrying. There is an old verse, 'the marriage of Cock Robin and Jenny Wren' in which the goldfinch also appears. Most folk will know that at all such ceremonies, the happy couple is always wished prosperity. For long years, the goldfinch represented and indeed, epitomised wealth in many minds and so it is not surprising that a nineteenth century verse reads - 'Who gives this maid away? I do say the goldfinch, and her fortune I will pay.'
However, in absolute contrast, there have also been times when the goldfinch has been treated abominably, especially during a period, predominantly in the nineteenth century, when the catching and then caging of wild birds was endemic. Naturally enough with their exceptionally colourful plumage and their wonderful singing voices, goldfinches were literally, top of the avian pops! Such was the popularity off this appalling pastime that it is said that as many as 132,000 goldfinches were caught and caged in a single parish in the year 1860!
Although twenty years later in 1880 the newly formed Society for the Protection of Birds (which later became the RSPB) succeeded in having a Protection of Birds Act passed, goldfinches continued to be caged in large numbers. Regular competitions were held with large amounts of prize money on offer for the most handsome birds and for the best songsters! Thankfully, the penny slowly dropped and whilst there are those who continue to show these birds, the vast majority these days are aviary bred.
In recent times, populations of truly wild goldfinches seem to be on the increase. One explanation for this may well be their popularity as garden birds and the availability of such favoured goldfinch foods as nyger seed and sunflower hearts. Perhaps, too, financial constraints upon Local Authorities contribute with more of the seed bearing plants such as rosebay willow-herb, thistles, knapweed burdock and nettles, all favourite sources of food for goldfinches, being left to stand on roadside verges and the like, rather than being cut down or sprayed.
Indeed, with such plants going to seed at this time of the year, goldfinches are enthusiastically beginning to gather their own very special harvests. And it is when they gather in their little 'charms' to reap their harvest that goldfinches show off their other attribute, that of supreme agility as they cling on to such plants in order to tease out the nourishing seeds. They may often be seen hanging upside down as they do this and in so doing, convey the image of highly adept acrobats.
The colourful nature of goldfinches makes them extremely attractive to watch, as many a garden bird-watcher would I'm sure confirm. And although perhaps our ancient ancestors did not have much time to sit and watch such things, the presence of goldfinches was nevertheless recognised as long ago as the eighth century as the Anglo Saxon words for the bird, 'thistletuige' and 'thistle-tweaker' demonstrate. There are still such names as 'thistle finch' and 'thistle warp' in everyday use in certain parts of Britain. Here of course, they are more likely to be referred to as 'goudspinks' although the traditional name for them in the Stirling area remains, 'thistle finch'! In the Gaelic it is 'las air choile' - the flame of the wood.
The re-emergence of goldfinch song seems almost like a celebration of that new suit of extra colourful clothes they have donned following the moult. Unlike the many migratory birds present here, our goldfinches are going nowhere and so do not have to turn their attention towards building themselves up for the challenge of a flight back to Africa. So instead, during these next few weeks they will be intent on reaping that harvest of seedsd. You may see them moving from one clump of weeds to the other, their tightly formed little flocks progressing in a deliciously undulating manner, their progress always accompanied by that delightful whispering music.
They readily charm us with both their appearance and their music. And now, as autumn begins its gradual advance, they will become increasingly obvious in our gardens, adding even more colour to a landscape of ever strengthening yellows, reds and golds and whispering deliciously and tunefully as they come and go. Time perhaps to buy those bags of nyger seed and sunflower hearts? It will be well worth it for these exceptional birrds are set to entertain us right through the winter! And the addition of their sweet voices to the otherwise muted autumnal chorus is an extra bonus!