Getting into the car to go out to lunch this morning, I noticed a large flock of small birds in the hedge. They were making a lively chattering noise, and I couldn't see what they were. Later on the Systems Administrator, on returning from a different lunch, said that there was a big flock of some sort of small birds outside. The SA couldn't see what they were, but thought they might be finches.
Looking out of the bedroom window at around a quarter to five, there they were in the big holly at the end of the wood, a great number of little birds flitting energetically through the branches of the tree and twittering to each other, and I saw that they were goldfinches. Bright creatures, with a yellow flash along their wings and distinctive red patches on their faces. A flock of goldfinches. A charm of goldfinches, indeed, though I think that is becoming pretty archaic. I can't think when I last heard anyone, wishing to refer to a quantity of finches, referred to them a charm. It is probably still a valid term for purposes of crossword setting and pub quizzes, but in normal conversation it is edging into the territory occupied by people who peruse menus instead of reading them.
I wondered what they were doing in the holly. They are seed eaters, and I have seen them on the teasel heads and the old stems of the evening primroses in the gravel, but they wouldn't find any seeds in the holly. They feed insects to their young, so maybe they eat insects themselves as well, but would they find any insects in late February? They must know their own business, so I'm sure they had a reason to be there.
One of the pictures of the infant Christ in the Courtauld gallery showed him holding a goldfinch, and a passing visitor explained to me that in Christian symbolism the goldfinch is associated with the Passion and the crown of thorns because of the thistle seeds it eats. Since then I've read somewhere the idea that the red splash on the goldfinch's face is because a drop of blood fell on it at the crucifixion. It's strange how animals and plants get attached to that story. In a few weeks the Crown Imperial fritillaries will be up, and if you tip one of the strange, foxy smelling flowers up to you and look into it you will see a permanent bead of nectar glistening at the base of each petal. These are said to be the fritillary's tears of shame at its failure to bow its head at the crucifixion, and is why the flowers now nod downwards in penitence.
From these elevating thoughts I went to my music society committee meeting. By the end of it I had agreed to spend a hunk of Saturday cooking four dozen chicken thighs for the fundraising supper concert. I realised on the way home that I had no idea how large a stew for twenty four people was, but if it won't all fit in our two casseroles there is always the stock pot, and in an emergency the jam saucepan.