Country diary: the seven-coloured linnets

Inkpen, West Berkshire: Goldfinches are dextrous feeders, tipping upside down, wings spread for balance

The first autumn mist is ribboning over the dampest runnels of the field like a silk scarf too fine to fall. It has softened and bloomed upon the thistle heads, thickening them to a milk-white glow; they gleam like harbour lights. There is a musical, conversational twittering as I approach; like the tinkling of water under ice, or the chinking of just enough small change. The goldfinches have found them.

I hold back and watch them: the vivid brightness of the birds on the taller thistles in the sun and the muted colours of those below the vapour, as if they have been overlaid with tracing paper. A neighbour of my Northamptonshire nan used to call them “the seven-coloured linnets” and I’ve never forgotten that.

I count the colours now: the satin-scarlet brow and face that look as though they have been planted in a pot of jam; the white headscarf; the brilliant yellow epaulettes gleaming down black wings; the deep caramel blush of two breastplates; the toffee back; the mouse-pale colour of the bill, perhaps?

Three European goldfinches squabbling at a bird feeder in a garden in south-east England.
Three European goldfinches squabbling at a bird feeder. Photograph: Graham Prentice/Alamy

Goldfinches are dextrous feeders, tipping upside down, wings spread for balance, the gold bars along their wings a Mondrian rectangle of sunflower paint. They tease the nutritious, weighted end from the tight-packed thistle head and snip it from the downy pappus with their fine tweezer bills.

I have seen them sidle up the stems of hawkbits in the lawn until the plants bow under their small weight and they can slide down, like circus-trained budgerigars, to get at the seeds. With their backs to me, now, the white spots on their wingtips and tail fold into the neat edge of a chessboard.

We have newly rented Nightingales Field for our borrowed horses and considered managing the pasture, its docks and the sharp thistles that the horses shy around as they canter away, set loose in the morning, throwing up dew from their hooves. But for what?

I step nearer and the goldfinches fly up into the full sun, turning the light white-hot and gold, toffee and scarlet, as if the contents of a jewellery box had been flung up, its musical notes tinkling on the air, lingering just behind.


Nicola Chester

The GuardianTramp

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