CORNWALL WILDLIFE: FINCHES
PUBLISHED: 17:38 17 May 2015 | UPDATED: 13:05 30 August 2017
Cornwall Life's resident wildlife photographer DAVID CHAPMAN goes in search of the fruit-loving finch
Windy weather and the arrival of spring can mean only one thing, the flowering of the blackthorn, its tasty bounty. Cornwall Life’s resident wildlife photographer DAVID CHAPMAN goes in search of the fruit-loving finch
At the turn of March and into April the blackthorn comes into blossom. This is a small hedgerow tree with fierce thorns yet delicate white blossom. This is a tree which produces flowers before leaves. From a distance individual flowers meld into a sinewy mass of white clinging tightly to every branch looking almost like snow. It has long been said that the emergence of blackthorn blossom brings with it a cold spell of weather giving rise to the term blackthorn winter’. In Cornwall it seems to coincide with windy weather, it always amazes me that the flowers are hardy enough to survive but, sure enough, each autumn we have a good crop of sloes.
There is one bird that has a strong association with the blackthorn, particularly at this time of the year. The flowers lure bullfinches to feed, though as well as eating blossom they also take its young leaf buds. Alternative names for the bullfinch include bud-bird’ and the name which we now use is a description of the bird’s broad bull-necked appearance. Unfortunately the bullfinch’s habit of taking buds and blossom has earned it a bad reputation with some gardeners and producers of fruit.
The bullfinch has had a bad reputation in Britain since the 16th century when it was first regarded as a pest for eating the blossom of apple and pear trees. During Elizabethan times bullfinches literally had a price on their heads with one penny being offered for each dead bird. It seems to have preferences for certain types of apples being less likely to eat the blossom of cooking apples than dessert varieties. In the bullfinch’s defence, it has been shown that a fruit tree can lose a half of its blossom without affecting its overall production of fruit since it will naturally produce a surplus of blossom. The bullfinch can eat a great deal of blossom but only does so in years when its natural food supplies, such as ash keys and dock seed, are in short supply.
Despite the male bullfinch’s stunning red breast, which he uses to good effect when courting, he is a very difficult bird to spot. The female has a more subtle brown colouring but both have an obvious white rump and it is this that most people notice when a bullfinch flies away. Bullfinches are found around trees and scrubland, and they particularly like wide, mature hedgerows close to woodland. Their gentle, but almost constant, few-few call presents us with the best chance of finding one. They always occur in pairs and in spring the bond between them is strengthened still further as the male displays to his partner, sometimes presenting her with a twig intended to be a broad hint to her that she should start building a nest!
Apart from food the bullfinch finds the safety it requires to nest in hedgerows and thickets, the twiggy nest holds between four and six eggs for the two-week incubation period. In fact, bullfinches are not at all territorial in the breeding season so the same bush could hold more than one nest. The young are reared predominantly on insects, which are very rich in protein, until they leave the nest. The only feature that they share with their parents is the white rump that makes them easy to identify. Soon the fledglings become independent and the adults begin their second brood, they may go on to raise a third brood if conditions are favourable.
Over the last few decades the British population of bullfinches has halved. There is no doubt in my mind that this decline is connected to the demise of the hedgerow, by which I mean both in quantity and quality. The straggly, thin and weedy hedge that attempts to separate so many fields in our modern-day countryside is no use to the bullfinch.
As with so many birds, the bullfinch nests in the middle of thickets the like of which can only be found in sensitively managed hedges. There is no more seductive a colour in the British countryside than the pink of a male bullfinch’s breast; if you, like me believe that our countryside would be a sadder place without them then please consider joining a conservation group such as the RSPB whose work with farmers and politicians is making a real difference.
I can’t be sure but there seems to have been a slight increase in the number of bullfinches recently. Throughout the winter I frequently saw and heard these beautiful birds close to paths where I always walk. I am looking forward to watching them this spring as they tuck into the blossom of the cherries and blackthorn on our smallholding and I for one don’t mind them having some of our apple blossom.
Other finches in Cornwall
One finch that is a regular in most gardens is the greenfinch. This species has a larger beak with which it opens chunkier seeds so the greenfinch can be found at the bird table for most of the year. In April, as the testosterone begins to rise, males can be seen bickering at bird tables with their wings partially open their yellow wing flashes seem to be used as a warning to competitors. Their squabbles erupt violently as two competitors fly vertically flapping and screeching at each other in an effort to dominate the feeders and presumably impress the females.
Their display flight is a delightful manoeuvre, from a perch the male flies up into the air and then glides down on vibrating wings whilst singing a rattling and repetitive but very enthusiastic dzeez-dzeez.
Despite their aggression greenfinches, like bullfinches, are not territorial when it comes to nesting and often do so in loose groups. Each male defends only a small territory around the nest but the combination of their efforts serves to deter predators, a strategy which is quite successful since this is one species that hasn’t yet suffered a population crash. By late April female greenfinches will be sitting on between four and six eggs, once the chicks hatch they are fed on insects because of their high protein content but after a couple of weeks they progress onto semi-digested seed.
Probably the best known of our finches is the chaffinch. The number of chaffinches in Cornwall will have decreased significantly over the last few weeks, many that spent the winter with us from Scandinavia or Eastern Europe will have returned home to breed. The individuals now in our garden will be staying for the summer and over the next few weeks will be making their nests. Both male and female collect nesting material but the female makes the nest, a remarkably neat cup shaped construction of grass, moss and lichen, lined with hair.
The pink breast of the male chaffinch, combined with its conspicuous white wing flashes, make it an easily identified bird, but it wasn’t the bird’s plumage which led to its common name the pink’. Between bouts of songs chaffinches have just the one word in their vocabulary though they do usually utter it twice in quick succession so other common names include chink-chink’ or pink twink’.
Our other commonest finches are the goldfinch and the siskin. Both of these birds will come to the garden to feed on niger seed. The goldfinch is unmistakable with red and black in the face and a beautiful yellow wing bar. The siskin is a very small finch. The male is striking with yellow, green and black in its plumage whilst the female is a streaky yellowish bird. Both the siskin and goldfinch are very successful birds both increasing their range and numbers but the siskin still has a long way to go to be anything like as common as the goldfinch.
This article first appeared in the April 2015 issue of Cornwall Life