Collective nouns for a group of finches include a charm, a flurry, and a trimming. I could add my own, an exuberance. Each expresses the joyful impression these birds make on the onlooker.
Finches have a unique relationship with humans and have for centuries been kept as caged birds. Of these the linnet is probably the best known, though you’ll be lucky to see one in the wild or elsewhere nowadays as their numbers have declined so much they are on the red list. I was lucky this week, and saw a pair drinking from a puddle outside my window. At first I thought them chaffinches but realised just before they flew off that their more speckled plumage and the delicate red breast of the male marked them out as something rather special. Walter de la Mare thought so too:
Upon this leafy bush
With thorns and roses in it,
Flutters a thing of light,
A twittering linnet.
And all the throbbing world
Of dew and sun and air
By this small parcel of life
Is made more fair;
As if each bramble-spray
And mounded gold-wreathed furze,
Harebell and little thyme,
Were only hers;
As if this beauty and grace
Did to one bird belong,
And, at a flutter of wing,
Might vanish in song.
Linnets and goldfinches once suffered the unpleasant fate of being blinded for their song, the loss of sight apparently being thought to encourage a sweeter music. In Holland there is still a sport going back hundreds of years known as Vinkensport, in which bird owners compete see whose finch can outperform others in producing the highest number of calls in a minute. Fortunately the birds are no longer blinded. This rather bizarre ritual attracts thousands of enthusiasts, but also has its enemies. Thomas Hardy, was an early opponent of the practice of blinding birds:
The Blinded Bird
So zestfully canst thou sing?
And all this indignity,
With God’s consent, on thee!
Blinded ere yet a-wing
By the red-hot needle thou,
I stand and wonder how
So zestfully thou canst sing!
Resenting not such wrong,
Thy grievous pain forgot,
Eternal dark thy lot,
Groping thy whole life long;
After that stab of fire;
Enjailed in pitiless wire;
Resenting not such wrong!
Who hath charity? This bird.
Who suffereth long and is kind,
Is not provoked, though blind
And alive ensepulchred?
Who hopeth, endureth all things?
Who thinketh no evil, but sings?
Who is divine? This bird.
People have kept songbirds in cages for thousands of years, perhaps because their songs expressed their own longing for freedom. Captive bred finches seem to cope well with being caged, but in the past many birds would have been caught in the wild. A finch makes a portable and cheap pet, much easier to keep than many other kinds of bird as it eats only seeds. No doubt they brightened the lives of many a family inhabiting a dark Victorian parlour or tenement, as this famous song from the Music Halls testified.
Maya Angelou’s famous autobiographical novel, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings took its title from a poem by Black American writer Paul Laurence Dunbar:
I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals –
I know what the caged bird feels!
I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting –
I know why he beats his wing!
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore, –
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings –
I know why the caged bird sings!
Birds have long been thought to have curative powers. Mark Cocker describes in his marvellous and fascinating book, Birds and People how the European Lark was once thought able to deliver a prognosis of impending death in a sick person. Goldfinches, robins and swallows were thought to have acquired their red feathers through attempting to relieve the suffering of Christ on the cross. More recently, Russian scientists have claimed that the song of certain species of birds, particularly finches can have specific neurological benefits.
Put crudely, bird song makes even the dullest person feel better. There is something about those cascading, often complex rhythmic high-pitched notes coming from a bird that resonates with us at a very deep level. It is even possible that the origins of music itself lie in our reactions to birdsong.
Image 1 Mikael Dia, Flickr Creative Commons
Image 2 TS Vintage Sheet Music