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Flame of the woods, keeper of the secret

Outdoor Living

BEAUTY BOUNTY The goldfinch’s striking markings and beautiful song make them a much-loved garden visitor.

Country Sights and Sounds

John Shelley

James, tired of sweeping up beneath the outstretched boughs of his flowering cherry trees, asked me to cut them down. “You’ve a chainsaw,“ he told me, “you can do it, and if you do you can have the wood for nothing.”
I’d want more than a few blocks of wood to do a job like that one, I said. Anyway, weren’t they the prettiest thing in spring, all pink and white and pointing past the end of winter and forward to the longer days ahead?
“They would be,” he agreed, “except that the very moment the blossoms appear the wind blows them onto the path and they’re nothing but a nuisance.”
I know what he means. It almost always is the case, that a few days of sun brings them nearly to their lightly fragrant peak and before we know it, just as we think to admire them, a cold, rain-filled wind brings their glorious prospect to nothing overnight. We reached a compromise. “How about I cut the lower branches back to let a bit of light and air through the garden? While I’m at it we’ll fix your chicken run and you can keep me in eggs for the rest of the year.”
That much was settled, then. The saw was put to work and more wood was trimmed from the trees than I thought was there. Halfway along one of the branches, settled tidily into the palm between spreading twiggy fingers, I found the nest of a goldfinch pair. And what a nest! A cleverly crafted little silver lichened bowl with a warm sheep’s wool lining, wherein had lived a nestling charm.
I find it strange, always, that such nests survive at all, for magpies scour each hedge and every shrub and tree, and tear such things asunder and devour all within. Yet here, midway along a steady bough, this nest must have been highly visible, especially with the brightly coloured parents calling numerous times throughout the day to keep their growing brood fed.
The goldfinch, being among the prettiest of our songbirds, has not always fared well at the hands of man. Only a handful of years ago I met a certain gentleman who liked to feed the birds in his back garden, drawing them there with liberal offerings of peanuts. His intention, however, was an evil one. By boiling the bark and green twigs of holly he produced a sticky glue, which he smeared over various perches nearby, and when his guests came to rest they found themselves stuck fast and unable to escape. From there they were carefully removed (at least I like to think so) and placed into cages to be distributed among bird fanciers and breeders, who liked (and probably still do) to cross them with canaries.
Thomas Hardy wrote quite horribly on this subject: “Within a churchyard, on a recent grave,/ I saw a little cage/ that jailed a goldfinch. All was silence save/ its hops from stage to stage.’
Perhaps a century before, English clergyman and poet James Hurdis took it upon himself to free songbirds trapped by peasant farmers and sometimes, it is said, leave a small coin within the trap by way of compensation. He also wrote of the goldfinch, declaring, “I would not hold him prisoner for the world.”
By 1900 populations of many species of songbird were decimated by commercial trappers who found a ready market for their captives in rapidly expanding cities and towns. I could imagine myself there, reproachful and indignant. “Look, how he yearns for freedom!”
“Yes,” would come the reply, “but how sweet he sings for it.”
In rural Ireland the goldfinch was Lassair choille, which I think translates as ‘Flame of the woods’. Elsewhere he bears a variety of other names, including some that quite understandably refer to his bold colouring, such as the Proud Tailor or the Lady with the Twelve Flounces and others that have to do with the bird’s natural diet, thence Thistle finch and varieties on that theme.
To us he is the Goldfinch, worth more than his weight in gold. Could there be anything more lovely than to hear the male singing from his post in the cherry tree, knowing that his wife is hid within her bower, beneath a canopy of leaves, and her eggs or young secure beneath her breast? I think not.
So, James must keep his trees, minus, of course, their lower branches, and six months from now there’ll be, once more, another secret hidden somewhere there.