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Birds: European Goldfinch

The FIRST European Goldfinch we spotted was lying prostrate on the ground with its neck awkwardly wrenched, and its feathers ruffled. It looked as if it would hop up at any moment and peck for some seeds. It’s red face, with white and black bands, offset its black eye from its buff breast and brown back. The bird’s red was the color of fresh fig pulp, but more vibrant. With its distinctive yellow wing bands visible, the bird appeared equally ready to take flight. Yet it was not to be. The bird’s white beak, open and slightly askew, was evidence that it was dead, the victim of some quick asphyxiation.

The SECOND sighting was equally dramatic as the first, but more chilling. Entering the Prado in Madrid, we found our way to the basement where the museum houses its collection of Hieronymus Bosch paintings, highlighting three in particular: The Table of Seven Deadly Sins, The Temptation of St. Anthony, and the Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1500). This last work, with its images on the front and the back of the wood panels, is Bosch’s magnum opus.

Bosch must have heard a few too many ancient heaven/hell tales in his day. Two and a half centuries later such tales were chronicled by the Brothers Grimm (c. 1850). And those stories frightened the children into the right behavior patterns. Fear is a powerful parental tool.

Taking in the entire Garden triptych is nearly impossible, but any single scene makes for rich eye candy. Looking carefully, right there, in the lower left of the middle panel on the triptych, sits a row of birds, led by a bird with the distinctive colors of a European Goldfinch.

With close inspection, the European Goldfinch is clearly distinguished from other fanciful avian fiends. It is dangling a ripe blackberry from its beak. The fruit hangs just out of reach above the heads of three naked and ghost-like bodies, each arching desperately, with mouths agape, towards the fruit.

The legs of a naked man lie across the back of the Goldfinch. The man is holding his ears and closing his eyes, as if in quiet meditation, oblivious to the bacchanalian antics of the people of various races, who are naked and swirling all around him.

The duck, flicker and kingfisher near the European Goldfinch are equally identifiable, but the birds are overshadowed by the fantastic nature of the entire scene and lost to the wandering eye. Bosch seems to be saying that even the fantastic birds, lined up in a row, are simply fodder for the foolish humans who prance around them.

Painted in the early 1500’s, this is an amazing allegorical view of Bosch’s world for those who gorge on earthly delights. The moral of the story seems to be that, although we all start life in the biblical Garden of Eden, the behaviors of few humans and beasts are pure or godlike, if any. For many who indulge in those carnal delights, they will likely receive their just desserts in a torturous hell.

The THIRD sighting of the Goldfinch was the charm. While walking the Camino de Santiago near St. Jean Pied de Port, there was a field of thistles growing in a hedgerow. With a pond nearby, the thistles were covered with a flock of European Goldfinches. They were so busy collecting seeds and taking sips of fresh water, that they did not seem to take note of the pilgrims who were walking by. Just as well. One swift binocular view and what a visual treat these birds provided. A quick breeze across the pond and the flock rose and scattered in unison flight, choreographed from their genes.

We spotted the Goldfinches many more times over the weeks as we walked the Camino. Each viewing was varied in terrain, topography and landscape. The birds seem to have adapted well to the cities and the countrysides of northern Spain.

One distressing view came when we arrived in the town of Navarrete. A local bird lover had caged a series of the European Goldfinches, House Finches and Chukars in tiny mesh crates just large enough, side to side, for the birds to flap their wings. Easily damaged by rapid wing movements, the birds were startled when we showed up. The birdman diligently swept the floor of feathers and poop, as if he really loved them, but the cages seemed inhumane to us. Some things should be kept in the wild.

The last time we sighted the European Goldfinches was equally thrilling. The elegant fliers were in undulating flight. Their distinctive calls were easy to identify, as they zoomed overhead. It was a treat to see the European version of this beautiful species.

Fly the coop, baby, and fly free!