The day the finches came
In 2003 we were living in a rental flat in east London. The patio was a bare, north-facing, gravelly patch that was empty save for a few weeds that had sprouted up about the place. It was pretty desolate and soulless out there. One afternoon I looked out to see a little bird perched on one of the offending seed heads of something thistle-like (I forget what it was; Senecio vulgaris/groundsel perhaps?) and was having a good peck. It was beautiful. It had bandit-like eyes, a bright red face and a streak of vivid yellow on its wings. I was mesmerized. And I had absolutely no idea what this bird was. It was shameful that such a beautiful bird would grace our cr*ppy patio with its handsome presence and feed on our unwanted ‘weeds’, and yet I didn’t have a clue what it was. I went out and got a bird book to rectify this sad state of affairs and so started my appreciation of our fine-feathered friends (although that appreciation still fails to extend to feral pigeons or seagulls).
This may seem quite an insignificant event but it was also one of those little moments when I realised I wanted more of that in my life – more of that colour and natural beauty, more discovery of something meaningful – less of the endless meetings, grey suits and grey faces in those grey offices. That (energy-saving) light bulb in my head was powering up.
When we moved into our suburban semi we didn’t have any expectations of the feathered guests we’d be receiving, but we’ve been lucky. We have several woods in the surrounding area and from the moment we moved in we’ve had an array of birds visiting our modest patch of green, including:
Blue & Great Tits, Starlings, Chaffinches, Dunnocks, Wren, Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Green Woodpeckers, Jays, Parakeets, Nuthatch, Greenfinches, Collared doves and we’ve even had Redpoll, Redwing and Long-tailed Tits. Not forgetting the robins, wood pigeons and magpies, which we get on a daily basis.
But no Goldfinches.
Despite putting out niger seed, practically as soon as we moved in in the hope that we would attract them to our turf, two years passed and not a single one came even close to a sniff (well, not that I ever saw).
And then, a few weeks ago, I look out of our kitchen window whilst making breakfast one morning and see a little bird bobbing about, clinging to the top of a seed head. I blinked and looked again. Unmistakable gold and red! It was feeding on seed heads* I had left over winter, both for interest and for the birds. And there a bird was. A Goldfinch no less. Feeding on my seed heads.
A couple of days later and there were four of them feeding amongst the plants. And then the following weekend AN ENTIRE FLOCK of them descended onto our little patch to feast on the dried winter seed heads. You wait for a goldfinch for two years…nada…then fifteen come along at once.
Wildlife brings a garden to life and sharing it with these little creatures is part of what it is all about. There is something extremely satisfying and happy-making when the garden you create is enjoyed by wildlife as much as it is by you.
Visits from butterflies, bees and birds have been a rewarding validation of my small gardening efforts. And with them comes a joy that, for me, makes gardening and life colourful.
Some photos from when the flock visited:
* We only have a modest garden but I still wanted a herbaceous bed. My criteria for plant selection, other than personal preference and aesthetics, was that it had to: a) suit the soil/situation/aspect – I’m far too lazy to be bothered to continually battle nature to make something thrive in a place it just doesn’t want to grow, not to mention the waste of time and resources that would involve; and b) it really had to earn its keep – with a long season of interest (preferably lasting into the winter with its form) and to be ‘useful’ or edible (if not for humans then for insects and birds). The two plants that attracted the Goldfinches were Verbena bonariensis and Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullvantii ‘Goldsturm’. They are both popular choices in contemporary planting and I can’t recommend them enough. They both look fab with a long flowering season and a good enough structure to stand up over winter. Butterflies and bees love them in summer, especially the verbena. Plus, the verbena has the added benefit of self-seeding about the place (which I see as a good thing). AND the goldfinches love them in the winter. What more do you need?