Another Life: Goldfinches in the city

Watching the ‘exotic acrobats’ as they feed is a modern pleasure

A modern pleasure:  goldfinches at the peanut feeder. Illustration: Michael  Viney

A modern pleasure: goldfinches at the peanut feeder. Illustration: Michael Viney

Sat, Dec 7, 2013, 01:00

Goldfinches are my birds of paradise – or as near, now, as I am ever likely to get. A little flock of these glorious birds has been commuting between the peanut feeders on the oak tree and the seeds, in dark cones, of an alder, just a few metres away. On the peanuts they sometimes fight and hiss at each other, but the alder lets them each have a whole twig, where they sway in the wind and swing upside down to peck – exotic acrobats. Perhaps we shouldn’t be spoiling them for choice.

It’s some years since autumn flocks of rural finches, finishing the thistle heads of the countryside, began following each other to the largesse of garden feeders. When BirdWatch Ireland began its annual surveys of winter garden birds, almost 20 years ago, Carduelis carduelis spent the first five seasons well down the list of the most common species. It soon began a rapid climb – to ninth place. This winter’s survey, just begun, might find them in even higher abundance after robins, blackbirds, tits and the rest. (Go to birdwatchireland.ie to join in.)

As winter cools, enormous numbers of goldfinches migrate from northern Europe to the lingering seed heads of the Mediterranean. In Spain and Portugal they can then become the commonest bird. This may now be changing, at least in our milder winters, as garden-bird foods support a near-industrial trade.

We buy peanuts in a hessian sack from the farmers’ co-op. It comes from Argentina, where more than 200,000 hectares nurture groundnuts, mostly for human foods. The growers have just had another poor crop, because of drought. But Argentina now leads the field in exports, China having turned almost all its huge production to the home demand for cooking oil. Argentina assures the EU of its superior care in keeping its nuts free of aflatoxin, the fungus that can damage human livers, as well as those of birds.

Peanuts, of course, are just the staple garden takeaway. Gourmet food for finches is black, shiny and oil-rich niger seeds, dispensed from special feeders. BirdWatch Ireland’s shop offers “Nyjer Nibbles” at €35 for 12.5kg (the alternative “nyjer”, some suggest, having been adopted commercially for fear of upsetting the market in racially sensitive countries where people can’t spell).

Niger, nyger, nyjer or even ramtilla, the seeds are prolifically those of Guizotia abyssinica, a tall and branching plant with small, aster-like yellow flowers that originated in the Ethiopian Highlands. It is now widely grown in Africa and Asia for its excellent edible oil. Much of the surplus exported for birdseed is heat-sterilised against invasive alien weeds – also the growth of niger scattered by finches on suburban lawns.

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