Which bird is supposedly colored by the blood of Jesus?
The European goldfinch, a native of Europe, North Africa and western and central Asia, is honored for its bright red face that extends from just behind the eye to the beak. Legend has it that the bird came across a suffering Jesus carrying his cross up Calvary and wearing a crown of thorns. It flew down and tried to remove the thistles, and as it did so, a drop of blood from Jesus stained the bird’s face. Ever since, it has been associated with the Passion of Christ.
The bird appears in many religious Italian Renaissance paintings, often placed in the hands of the infant Jesus, and can symbolize Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection or 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. The portrait was chosen because she thought the image would appeal to a child and was small enough to carry. In real life, it has never hung in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art nor has it been stolen.
We European goldfinches number over 100 million, and around 35 million breed in Europe, with 1.2 million in Britain. We are small, belong to the finch family, are around 13cm (5 in) long and weigh half-an-ounce. As well as the bright red face, our head is black and white, our back and flanks are buff to chestnut brown, the tail is black and we have black and yellow wings.
We are social, often flocking in groups, and enjoy the seeds that people leave in their back gardens. Otherwise you see us in open and partially wooded lowlands, among scattered bushes and trees and on rough ground with thistles and other seed-bearing plants. Don’t mistake us for similar-looking birds such as the greenfinch and siskin; neither has the red face.
We are monogamous, form long-lasting pairs and noisily defend our small territory. I supervise my wife who builds the nest on her own but is fed by me while she incubates the eggs. Some of us take a holiday to France, Belgium or Spain in winter, but many stay close to our breeding grounds. Our biggest fear is being caged. This still happens in North Africa but is much rarer in Europe. We were a preferred cage bird in Victorian Britain because of our appearance, and captured in huge numbers, but the UK authorities made the sale of wild birds illegal in 1933.
Curiously, in North America, the European goldfinch can legally be kept as a cage bird because it is not a native species. Some in fact have escaped and now breed in parts of the Midwest such as Wisconsin and Illinois. It is illegal to keep the American goldfinch in captivity and it is typical in summer to observe its flashes of gold as the bird occupies meadows and gardens. Adult males are colored bright yellow with a black forehead, black wings with white markings and white patches above and below the tail. It breeds in the north and is a non-breeding visitor to the southern states. It is kept company by the lesser goldfinch in the south-west United States, including Texas, and the Lawrence goldfinch that breeds in parts of California.