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The day the finches came

February 12, 2012

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.

Since then I have had a real soft spot for Goldfinches. If I had to have a favourite of the UK garden birds then they would be it (closely followed by the sweet, buff-coloured Long-tailed Tit).

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:

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* 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?

11 Comments leave one →
  1. February 12, 2012 11:14 am

    It’s because they’ve been so cold. Normally they’d be out in the country looking for food. But to get them in such huge numbers is wonderful! How lucky you were to see them! Thanks for sharing the pictures. I love them too.

    • February 12, 2012 11:22 am

      Yes, I have seen quite a few of them about generally this winter. Went for a walk yesterday in Knole and there were large flocks of them in all the trees chirping away. Very beautiful. Still, very exciting to get them in the garden all the same! Glad you like the photos.

  2. February 12, 2012 12:13 pm

    Beautiful pictures! My folks get lots of goldfinches visiting their feeders but I haven’t seen them in Hackney. I might have to try a niger seed feeder and just see if any arrive, I do love them!

    Thanks for the Verbena/Rudbekia tips … I have a couple of big (for my garden!) beds to plan and am definitely on the look out for plants that will give me year-round interest and be hard to kill :-)

    • February 12, 2012 1:11 pm

      Hi Di – yes, give the niger seed a go – you never know! A lot of patience may be needed but worth it if they come.

      With the verbena – it’s usually advised to mulch round the roots in the autumn to help them get through the winter. Although I have to admit I don’t always get round to doing this! And like I said, they will self seed and the seedling plants are usually much tougher once they get going. Have fun planning your beds!

  3. February 12, 2012 12:25 pm

    Beautiful photos and a lovely post. We are very lucky here to have all the resident goldfinches congregating on our telephone wire. In our previous garden we used to get between 6 and a dozen visiting but we now see up to 26 at a time sitting on the wire. An amazing sight. Did you know a group of goldfinches is known as a charm? Suits them perfectly!

    • February 12, 2012 1:13 pm

      Thanks Sue. How gorgeous – they must look a real sight in a row on the wire. And no, I didn’t know a group of goldfinches is called a charm – what a fantastic collective noun for them. Suits them perfectly!

  4. February 12, 2012 2:32 pm

    Gosh how lucky! They are just lovely! I too have been waiting for some years to see Gold Finches. Only one graced the garden a couple of years ago, but none since. We put out Niger seed, but none came. Will have a closer look at our Verbena seed heads in future though. Will keep my fingers crossed to one day see such a wonderful display!

    • February 12, 2012 6:05 pm

      Hi Petra – yes, fingers crossed for you that they’ll pay you a visit soon! They are such beautiful little things!

  5. February 16, 2012 8:04 am

    They’re beautiful. I am wondering whether verbena bonariensis and rudbeckia would tempt them into my London garden?

  6. February 17, 2012 1:20 pm

    what a lovely post! We grow both of those, but no goldfinches yet! Sparrows, blue tits, blackbirds, robins, magpies, crows and our resident jackdaws, many starlings, a pair of collared doves and once a green woodpecker…but no goldfinches in this corner of Hildenborough, maybe I’ll try the niger seeds you mention, thanks for the tip!

  7. March 15, 2012 2:38 pm

    I completely agree about both Rudbeckia and Verbena as being great plants. Verbena especially is so great for insects. Mine are always covered in butterflies and last year I found 2 hummingbird hawk moths feeding on them. People often say we don’t have any interesting birds in this country but you can’t get much more colourful than goldfinches. We’ve had a few in the garden this year but I never manage to get close enough to get any good photos.

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