Which bird is supposedly colored by the blood of Jesus?
The European goldfinch, a native of Europe, North Africa and western and central Asia, was such an attractive bird that hundreds of thousands were taken from the wild to become cage birds in Britain less than 100 year ago. This led to the British government passing an Act in 1933 that made the sale of wild birds illegal, and by the early 1960s, it was a much more common sighting in my neighborhood, and recorded on numerous occasions by fellow birdwatchers. It was easily distinguished by its crimson face, black and white head and black and yellow wings.
Legend has it that the bird encountered a suffering Jesus carrying his cross to Calvary and wearing a crown of thorns. The bird flew down to try and remove the thistles (its favorite food), and as it did so, a drop of blood from Jesus stained the bird’s face. Ever since, the goldfinch has been associated with the Passion of Christ. The bird appears in many religious Italian Renaissance paintings and symbolizes Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection and redemption. The Dutch painter, Carel Fabritius in 1654 painted a life-size goldfinch chained to a perch. This picture was used by Donna Tartt in her prize-winning novel of the same name.
Currently, the European population of goldfinches is around 100 million, and about one million breed in Britain, with their territory spreading northwards. The bird is small, around 5 inches (13cm) in length, and weighs half-an-ounce (15 grams). The species is highly social, often flocking in groups, and enjoys the seeds that people provide in their bird feeders. Otherwise you see them foraging for seeds on wasteland and road sides. They are monogamous, forming long-lasting pairs and noisily defend their breeding site. The female builds the nest and incubates the eggs while the male feeds her. Most goldfinches stay close to their breeding ground although some seek out warmer weather by visiting the south of France and Spain during winter.
The goldfinch is represented in North America by three species, but they belong to a different genus and are not closely related. However, the European goldfinch was a popular cage bird in North America and escapees have populated Wisconsin and parts of Michigan.
In California, we have all three American variants present – the American goldfinch (the prettiest), the lesser goldfinch (formerly called the Arkansas goldfinch) and Lawrence’s goldfinch (named after a former American ornithologist). While different in appearance, all goldfinches (including the European one) flock together, constantly call in flight and enjoy the same food (seeds from thistles, sunflowers, grasses and certain trees). They are attracted to bird feeders and I can claim to have had all three visit my back garden during the past year.
It is strange that certain birds in North America have been given the same name as European species but are not closely related. Probably the best other example is the American robin. Apparently it was named by European settlers because it has the same brown body and orange breast that the much smaller European robin possesses. However, the latter belongs to the flycatcher family whereas the American robin is a member of the thrush family.
But be reassured that most of the species seen in the Old World and New World carrying the same name, are closely related. This includes waders like whimbrel, curlew and dunlin; ducks and geese such as mallard, goldeneye, greater scaup and Canada goose; seabirds such as scoters, puffins, and arctic tern; and raptors like osprey, peregrine falcon, northern goshawk and merlin.