In depressing February what a rare and special delight it is to spot bullfinches in the gardens. The quintessential orchard bird, the bullfinch's Welsh name 'Coch y Berllan' translates as 'red of the orchard.' The male bullfinch is unmistakeable with his gorgeous rose-red breast, black cap, stubby black bill, grey back, black-and-white wings, black tail and white rump. The female's colouring is similar, with the exception of her muted pink breast.
Bullfinches love to gorge on fruit buds and were once numerous enough to be considered a horticultural pest. In the 16th century, Henry VIII condemned their ‘criminal attacks’ on fruit trees, and an Act of Parliament declared that one penny would be paid for every bird killed. But as with most British song-birds, bullfinch numbers have been decimated by changing agricultural practices and the challenge now is to encourage these gorgeous birds, not deter them. For several years bullfinches were on the RSPB red endangered list and although a slight increase in numbers has lifted them into the amber category, the majority are found in Wales and the West country. They remain an uncommon sight in Eastern England.
So how can we attract more of these beauties into our gardens? The first consideration is their preferred habitat. These large, shy finches need dense hedging or thicket for nesting and cover. Spindly, unmanaged hedgerows leave the birds too exposed - one of many reasons hedgerow maintenance is such an important challenge for us in Waterfurlong. Bullfinches mate for life and do not stray
far from the place of their birth. They typically nest
within the canopy of a hawthorn, blackthorn or bramble bush, four to seven feet off the ground. The nests are made from small twigs, moss and lichens and lined with a thick cushion of fine roots.
Equally challenging is the bullfinch's highly-seasonal diet - fruit buds in spring, insects in early summer, berries in autumn and seeds in late summer and again in winter. A shortage of any one of these food-groups makes it difficult for the birds to survive.
The bullfinch's culinary year begins in April with fruit buds. The bird has an unusually refined palate, preferring dessert apples to cookers and Conference pears to Doyenne du Comice! Bullfinches also feed on some varieties of plum and cherry, as well as the buds of hawthorn, blackthorn, blackberry and dog rose. It's the flower buds they go for (the leaf buds being less nutritious) but bullfinch numbers in our part of the country are so low they're unlikely to present a major threat to anyone's fruit crop.
In May parent birds spend a few weeks catching protein-rich insects for their chicks and are particularly adept at hovering near spiders' webs for flies. In order to carry food back to its young the bullfinch has special food sacs in the floor of its mouth.
In June the bullfinch moves onto flower seeds and the two species it apparently finds most delectable are violet and meadowsweet. The former is an easy potential win for local gardeners, as wild violets enjoy our rich
Lincolnshire soil and will grow well in dappled shade beneath hedgerows and deciduous trees. Meadowsweet thrives in damper positions, such as ditches and the banks of streams. If neither violet nor meadowsweet is on the menu, acceptable alternatives include buttercup, dandelion, honesty and nettle. Dock will be turned to as a foodstuff of last resort. There used to be the occasional report of bullfinches nipping off sweet pea buds and we've certainly seen great tits doing this in our own garden.
Bullfinches are ahead of their goldfinch cousins when it comes to finding the seed of knapweed, sorrel, sow thistle and rye-grass in high summer. This is when they will also begin feasting on blackberries, ripe and unripe. By September their diet is almost exclusively berries - haws, rowan, elderberries and sometimes gardeners' prize currant crops. When eating berries, the bullfinch can be spotted
standing with one leg out behind and the other at right angles to its body. It is a slow and deliberate feeder, who manages to remove the seeds whilst leaving the pulp intact, hanging from the plant.
October sees the ripening of seeds and berries that will sustain the bullfinch through the winter months - birch, sycamore, ash, whitebeam, guelder rose, privet and sometimes yew. In harsh weather bullfinches will visit
bird tables and feeders, particularly those placed in
secluded positions. They will make a bee-line for sunflower hearts, but will also eat other seeds and suet cake. The bird's bright plumage and habit of intense concentration when feeding can unfortunately make it an easy target for predators.
Bullfinches lack the strong flocking instinct of many of their finch cousins, but in late spring some groups - known by the wonderful collective noun 'a bellowing' - pay frequent visits to bird-tables with their fledglings. They make a continuous and distinctive 'pipping' sound when feeding, presumably to help keep parties together.
You can hear the bullfinch's regular song on our web-page - a low-pitched short whistle or fluted 'phu' note. It has the ability to mimic tunes and this led to its popularity as a caged bird in the past.
In 1959 ornithologist Ian Newton published a detailed study of UK bullfinches and his 'The Diet And Feeding Habits Of The Bullfinch' remains a useful resource if you'd like to delve deeper.
Copyright © Karen Meadows 2019