European goldfinch

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European goldfinch
In Tarn, France
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Passeriformes
Family: Fringillidae
Genus: Carduelis
Species: C. carduelis
Binomial name
Carduelis carduelis
(Linnaeus, 1758)
Carduelis carduelis map.png
Carduelis carduelis carduelis
1 summer 2 all year
Carduelis carduelis caniceps
3 summer 4 all year

The European goldfinch or goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis), is a small passerine bird in the finch family.

Taxonomy and systematics[edit]

The goldfinch was described and illustrated by Swiss naturalist Conrad Gesner in his Historiae animalium of 1555.[2] In 1758 Linnaeus included the species in the 10th edition of his Systema Naturae under its current binomial name, Carduelis carduelis.[3][4] Carduelis is the classical Latin word for a goldfinch.[5]

The English word 'goldfinch' was used in the second half of the 14th century by Geoffrey Chaucer in his unfinished The Cook's Tale: "Gaillard he was as goldfynch in the shawe (Gaily dressed he was as is a goldfinch in the woods)".[6]


The subspecies are divided into two major groups which intergrade at their boundary so the groups are not recognised as distinct species despite their readily distinguishable plumage. Subspecies in the carduelis group occupy the western part of the range and have black crowns, subspecies in the caniceps group occupy the eastern part of the range and have grey heads.[7][8]

carduelis group
  • Carduelis carduelis balcanica Sachtleben, 1919 – Southeastern European
  • Carduelis carduelis brevirostris Zarudny, 1890 – Crimea, north Caucasus
  • Carduelis carduelis britannica (Hartert, 1903) – British Isles
  • Carduelis carduelis carduelis (Linnaeus, 1758) – Most of European mainland, Scandinavia
  • Carduelis carduelis colchica Koudashev, 1915 – Crimea and northern Caucasus
  • Carduelis carduelis frigoris Wolters, 1953 – Western Siberia
  • Carduelis carduelis niediecki Reichenow, 1907 – Southwest Asia, northeast Africa
  • Carduelis carduelis parva Tschusi, 1901 – Atlantic Macaronesic Islands (Canary I., Madeira), Iberia, northwest Africa.
  • Carduelis carduelis tschusii Arrigoni degli Oddi, 1902 – Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily
  • Carduelis carduelis volgensis Buturlin, 1906 – Southern Ukraine, southwestern Russia and northwestern Kazakhstan
caniceps group
  • Carduelis carduelis caniceps Vigors, 1831 – Southern central Asia.
  • Carduelis carduelis paropanisi Kollibay, 1910 – Afghanistan to western Himalaya and Tien Shan.
  • Carduelis carduelis subulata (Gloger, 1833) – South-central Siberia.
  • Carduelis carduelis ultima Koelz, 1949 – Southern Iran


Two C. c. caniceps on a sunflower, in Tabo, Himachal Pradesh
Male C. c. caniceps, in Jispa, Himachal Pradesh

The average goldfinch is 12–13 cm long with a wingspan of 21–25 cm and a weight of 14 to 19 grams. The sexes are broadly similar, with a red face, black and white head, warm brown upperparts, white underparts with buff flanks and breast patches, and black and yellow wings.

On closer inspection male goldfinches can often be distinguished by a larger, darker red mask that extends just behind the eye. In females, the red face does not reach the eye. The ivory-coloured bill is long and pointed, and the tail is forked. Goldfinches in breeding condition have a white bill, with a greyish or blackish mark at the tip for the rest of the year. Juveniles have a plain head and a greyer back but are unmistakable due to the yellow wing stripe. Birds in central Asia (caniceps group) have a plain grey head behind the red face, lacking the black and white head pattern of European and western Asian birds.[9][10]


Distribution and habitat[edit]

The goldfinch is native to Europe, North Africa, and western and central Asia. It is found in open, partially wooded lowlands and is a resident in the milder west of its range, but migrates from colder regions. It will also make local movements, even in the west, to escape bad weather. It has been introduced to many areas of the world.[11] It was introduced at numerous places in south-eastern Australia, and New Zealand, in the 19th century, and their populations quickly increased and their range expanded greatly. They now occur from Brisbane to the Eyre Peninsula in Australia, and throughout New Zealand.[12]

Behaviour and ecology[edit]

A nest and eggs.

The goldfinch's preferred food is small seeds such as those from thistles (the Latin name is from Carduus, a genus of thistles) and teasels, but insects are also taken when feeding young. It also regularly visits bird feeders in winter. Goldfinches nest in the outer twigs of tall leafy trees, or even in bamboo, laying four to six eggs, which hatch in 11–14 days.

In the winter goldfinches group together to form flocks of up to forty, occasionally more.

The song is a pleasant silvery twittering. The call is a melodic tickeLIT, and the song is a pleasant tinkling medley of trills and twitters, but always including the trisyllabic call phrase or a teLLIT-teLLIT-teLLIT.

In earlier times, the goldfinch was kept as a cagebird for its song. Escapes from captivity and deliberate releases have colonised southeastern Australia and New Zealand.

Goldfinches are attracted to back gardens in Europe and North America by birdfeeders containing niger (commercially described as nyjer) seed. This seed of an annual from South Asia is small, and high in oils. Special polycarbonate feeders with small oval slits at which the goldfinches feed are sometimes used.

Relationships with humans[edit]

Goldfinches are commonly kept and bred in captivity around the world because of their distinctive appearance and pleasant song. The goldfinch males are sometimes crossed with Canary females with the intention to produce male mules with beautiful singing voices, that often capture the best singing attributes of both breeds.

Christian symbolism[edit]

Because of the thistle seeds it eats, in Christian symbolism the goldfinch is associated with Christ's Passion and his crown of thorns. The goldfinch, appearing in pictures of the Madonna and Christ child, represents the foreknowledge Jesus and Mary had of the Crucifixion. Examples include the Madonna del cardellino or Madonna of the Goldfinch, painted by the Italian renaissance artist Raphael in about 1505–6, in which John the Baptist offers the goldfinch to Christ in warning of his future. In Barocci's Holy Family a goldfinch is held in the hand of John the Baptist who holds it high out of reach of an interested cat. In Cima da Conegliano's Madonna and Child, a goldfinch flutters in the hand of the Christ child. It is also an emblem of endurance, fruitfulness, and persistence. Because it symbolizes the Passion, the goldfinch is considered a "saviour" bird and may be pictured with the common fly (which represents sin and disease).[13] The goldfinch is also associated with Saint Jerome and appears in some depictions of him.[13]

Depictions in art[edit]

Antonio Vivaldi composed a Concerto in D major for Flute "Il Gardellino" (RV 428, Op. 10 No. 3), where the singing of the goldfinch is imitated by a flute.

Goldfinches, with their "wanton freak" and "yellow flutterings", are among the many natural "luxuries" that delight the speaker of John Keats's poem 'I stood tip-toe upon a little hill...' (1816).[14]

In the poem The Great Hunger by Patrick Kavanagh, the goldfinch is one of the rare glimpses of beauty in the life of an elderly Irish farmer:

The goldfinches on the railway paling were worth looking at
A man might imagine then
Himself in Brazil and these birds the birds of paradise

Donna Tartt's novel The Goldfinch won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.[15][16] A turning point in the plot occurs when the narrator, Theo, sees his mother's favourite painting, Carel Fabritius's The Goldfinch, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


  1. ^ BirdLife International (2012). "Carduelis carduelis". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 November 2013. 
  2. ^ Gesner, Conrad (1555). Historiæ animalium liber III qui est de auium natura. Adiecti sunt ab initio indices alphabetici decem super nominibus auium in totidem linguis diuersis: & ante illos enumeratio auium eo ordiné quo in hoc volumine continentur (in Latin). Zurich: Froschauer. pp. 235–237. 
  3. ^ Paynter, Raymond A. Jnr., ed. (1968). Check-list of birds of the world, Volume 14. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Museum of Comparative Zoology. pp. 247–250. 
  4. ^ Linnaeus, C. (1766). Systema Naturæ per regna tria naturae, secundum classes, ordines, genera, species, cum characteribus, differentiis, synonymis, locis, Volume 1 (in Latin) (10th ed.). Holmiae:Laurentii Salvii. p. 180. 
  5. ^ Jobling, James A (2010). The Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names. London: Christopher Helm. p. 91. ISBN 978-1-4081-2501-4. 
  6. ^ "The Cook's Prologue and Tale: An Interlinear Translation (line 4367)". The President and Fellows of Harvard College. Retrieved 25 July 2015. 
  7. ^ Gill, Frank; Donsker, David (eds.). "Finches, euphonias". World Bird List Version 5.3. International Ornithologists' Union. Retrieved 23 July 2015. 
  8. ^ Clement, P. "European Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis)". In del Hoyo, J; Elliott, A.; Sargatal, J.; Christie, D.A.; de Juana, E. Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions. Retrieved 25 July 2015. (subscription required)
  9. ^ Clement, P., Harris, A., & Davis, J. (1993). Finches & Sparrows. Christopher Helm. ISBN 0-7136-8017-2.
  10. ^ Svensson, L. (1992). Identification Guide to European Passerines. ISBN 91-630-1118-2.
  11. ^ Snow, D. W. & Perrins, C. M. (1998). The Birds of the Western Palearctic concise ed. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-854099-X.
  12. ^ "European Goldfinch". Birdlife Australia. Retrieved 27 July 2013. 
  13. ^ a b Werness, Hope B. (2007). Animal Symbolism in World Art. Continuum. ISBN 0-8264-1913-5. 
  14. ^ "2. I Stood tip-toe upon a little hill. Keats, John. 1884. The Poetical Works of John Keats". Retrieved 2012-12-27. 
  15. ^ Flood, Alison (13 February 2013). "Donna Tartt to publish first novel for 11 years". The Guardian. Retrieved 10 October 2013. 
  16. ^ The Pulitzer Prizes | Citation

Further reading[edit]

  • Friedmann, Herbert (1946). The Symbolic Goldfinch: its History and Significance in European Devotional Art. Washington DC: Pantheon Books. OCLC 154129908. 

External links[edit]