Since I retired my relationship with animals has changed enormously – I now speak to them! Whether it is a bird, a frog or a hedgehog, I find myself greeting them with at least a ‘Hello’. And there is more; on walks in the countryside or when working in the garden I now identify with them; guessing what they might be thinking or trying to explain their behaviour, at least in human terms!

It is with birds that I feel a particular kinship and based on their looks, their behaviour and their relationships either with each other or with us humans, I have a ‘like’ hierarchy. Until recently, top of the ladder were robins; equal seconds blue tits and chaffinches, and fourth blackbirds. At the foot were starlings, magpies and house sparrows. This blog is about a recent addition at the very top – the beautifully coloured and endearing goldfinch – and tells how our adopted pair of goldfinches were repeatedly harassed by a gang of sparrows who, through their behaviour, stay firmly fixed to my bottom rung.

First to the tiny goldfinches and how seeing them is such a delight. The story started eight years ago when, after introducing me to the idea of goldfinches and extolling their beauty, a friend gave us a goldfinch feeder to be installed in our Brittany garden. Loaded with their favourite food – the tiny black Niger seed – its narrow holes make it the perfect dispenser for their sharp-tipped beaks. He told us that with the feeder in place “Goldfinches would soon be regular visitors”. In fact, not one bird honoured his promise and after a while the feeder was dismantled. 

The dream however continued and now knowing what to look for, years later I occasionally spotted a goldfinch pair with their bright red faces and yellow tinged wings, flitting through the trees in front of our London house.  If they were happy to visit the front, surely they could be enticed to visit our tiny garden at the back and, full of hope, I bought a second goldfinch feeder. There was already a feeder for other birds on the right side of the garden and to avoid possible conflict the new one was placed next to the wall on the left. 

Now the wait was on. For three years the London feeder was kept clean and stocked with food but no goldfinches appeared. Then a month ago, as I was sitting in our conservatory with my mid-morning cuppa, I suddenly saw one balancing on the feeder and eating furiously. It was beautiful! Minutes later another arrived – now we had a pair and it was a ‘dream come true’. Since then the two have visited our feeder several times each day – they overnight somewhere else – and the pleasure I get each time I see them (see the illustration) dominates everything. Interestingly, the fact that they chose to eat in our garden makes me feel honoured, and that they finally found us after so many years makes their visits doubly special.

Goldfinches are watchful and timid, some might say nervous birds and fly off at the slightest disturbance, and to witness the repeated dive bomb attacks they have suffered from our resident sparrows has been horrible. Usually they ‘bomb’ singly, sometimes in twos, and for their sortie they break off from their gang mates leaving them to feed from their ‘fat ball’ dispenser’ that hangs by the wall opposite. 

Like everyone else I can get annoyed, but my annoyance spills over into anger, even fury, when I see the sparrows attacking in this way. But while I get angry, there will be animal-lovers who see the gang as either simply defending its territory and doing what, in nature, sparrows rightfully do, or just being their playful and mischievous selves. So while I see their behaviour towards the goldfinches as aggressive, excessive, unnecessary and indefensible others will see it as one of nature’s legitimate strategies. Interestingly, when they are not dive bombing the goldfinches they are nipping at, or chasing off our garden robin or our blue tits as they try to eat from the shared feeder. In addition the five nip at each other and squabble amongst themselves as they too feed. To me, our gang of sparrows are an unattractive bunch. To others, I suspect they are simply loveable rogues.

Despite the behaviour of the sparrows, goldfinches, blue tits and robins still come back to feed so it seems that members of the animal world have a way of accommodating even the most challenging behaviour of others. I am not sure that I could be so forgiving, perhaps it is something that I need to work on!

The illustration is a photo of the two goldfinches eating Niger seeds from their feeder in our garden. The picture had to be taken through a window which has introduced a slight blur.

For helping me write this blog I would like to thank Anis, Jeni, Rohan and Vivien.

8 thoughts on “Two Endearing Birds and Five Mischief Makers

  1. Dear Joe I agree goldfinches are very endearing (especially with their exotic looks). I have a greater appreciation of sparrows these days. I used to view them as boring chirpers, but now they are relatively rare, snd it is a happy surprise to come across them, so you are fortunate to have them in your garden. But I understand how you feel towards them when they seem like bulllies. (Maybe you bear some responsibility for enticing the goldfinches in to the sparrows’ territory with the feeder?). I also now have greater appreciation of the characteristics of starlings with their shiny colourful coat, amazing voice and the fantastic murmuration spectacle (that I have only seen once when visiting Tregennec). I would find hard to rank them. Thanks for writing about birds.


    1. Dear Andrea, Thank you for your many comments. It seems that we all see birds rather differently. And, it was in Tréguennec that Rohan and I saw a murmuration close by, stopped the car, and watched hundreds of thousands of starlings funnel down on to the field just a few yards away! Love, Joe


  2. Dear Joe, your values of fairness and community shine through in this blog.

    What a lovely sight to see these beauties, you’ve so long waited for and how sad to see them being bullied.

    As you say, that’s their world but how similar it is to ours.


    1. Dear Carolyn, Thank you for your comments. You are right, bullying is so often part of our culture. Should it be tolerated (as amongst birds) or should it be resolved? Surely, the latter. Love, Joe


  3. Lovely story. We have a new arrivals around our house this month – the swallow, which has been slowly spreading though NZ for many years. 30?years
    I love their speed and acrobatic ability, tho I wonder if they will compete with our native fantail as they both catch insects on the wing. The swallows seem to go much higher so maybe their territories will not clash too much.
    We feed out birds in the winter only. Our neighbourhood was just grass land, and as the houses spread and increase, so does the trees and shrubs and food for the birds.


  4. Perhaps we are a little too selective in the way we romanticise some of our feathered friends and denigrate others? In our small West London back garden we had blackbirds, goldfinches aplenty, wrens, blackcaps, robins, tits of all varieties and a solitary dunnock, all of whom seemed untroubled by the gang of quarrelsome sparrows that lived in our neighbour’s box hedge. So, I’d like to put in a good word for your unloved species too. The eaves of our house were home to a small tribe (platoon? cacophony?) of parakeets roosting in a hole in the brickwork – until I eventually replaced the missing brick. I still feel bad about that. And starlings deserve to be better loved. Look closer, and admire their striking, iridescent plumage. They are clever mimics – our local comedian often entertained us by running through his wide repertoire of mechanical clicks, whirrs and whistles – and, of course, their massed aerobatics at dusk are one of nature’s greatest wonders. Now we live in Kent, I can even appreciate magpies. When out cycling, if I see a solitary magpie in a field (One for sorrow, etc.) I save it up until I see another one. Then it becomes my personal Ode to Joy. It’s plain sailing after that!


    1. Dear Al, Many thanks for your comments. First, I must thank you for introducing me to the goldfinch. Second, I wonder if you had so many birds in your garden because you lived very close to Kew Gardens. Third, well – what is your “like” hierarchy? Yours, Joe


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