Conditions remain remarkably benign despite a distinctly autumnal feel to the weather and rolling banks of grey mist, which seem to roam this landscape like some giant predator intent on consuming everything in its path. From time to time, it rolls in to obliterate completely our contact with the surrounding landscape. Suddenly we are submerged, utterly enveloped by its cloying presence. The skeletal trees now become indistinct shadows before disappearing altogether as this creeping monster gorges itself, swallowing all but the closest remnants of familiar landmarks. But then, it moves on, silently drifting towards other surrounding landscapes, suddenly allowing the sun at last to briefly illuminate the wonderful autumn colours that make this the golden, ruddy season that it is. ‘Season of mists … indeed!
The muffling silence that comes with these wandering clouds, is broken as evening creeps across the landscape and great hordes of pink-footed geese rise from the vapours. At first there is no sight of such a spectacle, just the sound. It is reminiscent of a crowd in a distant football stadium, the cacophony of their collective voices rising steadily, as if their team is advancing on an opponent’s goal. At first, they shriek unseen but the sound advances until slowly they are revealed, their long, straggling skeins at last briefly materialising, as they fly directly overhead, before disappearing again into the ether. They must have scored (!) for in that moment, the full force of their voices is heard before, as they de-materialise, their gabbling becoming muffled as the mist reclaims them! And they are gone. Silence descends again.
It is perhaps these changing moods that add to the mystique of our autumn and I sometimes ponder, cause the frustrations that such obliteration brings. I know the colours out there are magnificent, yet the vision of them is denied as we are from time to time thus blind-folded, if only temporarily. There have been hints that Jack Frost is lurking close by yet the traffic, such as it is, at my bird feeders, tells it’s own tale. It is utterly dominated by the speugs. A few chaffinches potter and an occasional great or bluetit picks away at the nuts whereas in the main the sparrows swarm all over everything! Only during the last few days has there been a little flurry of goldfinch activity on the niger seed dispensers, and sometimes the nuts, so presumably the autumnal bonanza of seeds in the landscape is at last diminishing. Yet clearly there is as yet, plenty of natural food out there
In recent years I have certainly seen the local goldfinch population flourish. I have grown particularly fond of them for their little red faces and the flashes of gold and yellow on their wings, certainly brings those extra element of colour to proceedings on winter days when darkness or those creeping mists turn landscape colours into a kind of monochrome. And they are feisty little birds, often raucously arguing with each other over seats at ‘the table’; their rasping arguments a stark contrast to their otherwise sweet voices. In better moods their whispering conversations literally charm. Someone once described it as being reminiscent of the muted sound of Chinese bells. However, goldfinches in full voice, are of course, recognised as being amongst the sweetest choristers in our gardens. Collectively they are appropriately known as ‘charms of goldfinches’.
Indeed in days long gone, such was the attraction of goldfinches that millions of them were forced into captivity during that period in our history in the second half of the nineteenth century when Queen Victoria was on the throne. They were perceived to be good to look at with their red faces and golden barred wings as well as being very good to listen to. Catching and keeping cage birds was then a very popular pastime in many parts of the country before thankfully, the cruelty of such practices was at last recognised and legislation introduced to prevent it. At its height however, those millions of birds, with goldfinches among the most desired, were robbed of their freedom and forced to spend their entire lives in miserable little cages.
So popular was this pastime that considerable sums of money were wagered on captive birds that could really sing. It was common practice for bird fanciers to gather, most notably is some of the city drinking dens, in order to engage in competitions between rival birds. Worse still was a belief among some that their birds would sing sweeter if they had been blinded!
I have often pondered on the strange dichotomies of Victorian life. There was palpably, a great surge in interest in all things natural, as expressed in both art and poetry, as well as in a veritable proliferation of serious literature on natural history, yet there was also a rise in the level of cruelty caused for instance, by the cage-bird collectors. And, curiously enough there was also a desire among the more affluent, to decorate their homes with dead birds and animals, suitably mounted of course and arrayed in glass cases! Such was the popularity of these accoutrements to Victorian life that there were those who made a good living out of killing such specimens. Thus perished for example, the last pair of breeding ospreys in Scotland early in the twentieth century.
I cannot tell if goldfinches were ever displayed in this way. They were on the other hand, a strong presence in devotional art, appearing in many paintings for instance, of the Virgin Mary and the Christ child, especially those painted by French and Italian artists. They are always a collective presence, for goldfinches are extremely sociable birds, which seem to enjoy each other’s company. Their passage across the autumn landscape is always in unison, their little flocks characteristically progressing in undulating togetherness as they travel from one feeding station to another, their murmuring conversations always a charming accompaniment.
Their agility too is well documented as they swing athletically on the likes of thistles and nettles to carefully tweak out the precious, nourishing seeds. If there were avian ball games, goldfinches would, I am sure, be particularly adept at them for one of the sadder and more cruel aspects of the lives of those caged goud spinks, was the placement of water in a little container lowered on a string. To drink therefore, the poor birds had to demonstrate their foot to eye co-ordination by hauling the containers up when they wanted a drink! So how much more rewarding is it to watch them as they freely come and go to enjoy offerings of niger seed! And furthermore they are colourful enough to embellish even the most colourful of autumn days.