Girton village website - Nature

Girton Birdwatch - August 2006

Bullfinch

There are two birds which frequent the village - one more often than the other - that, for some reason, I have not mentioned so far (I suspect I know the reason, but more of that later). They are the Chaffinch and Bullfinch. The Chaffinch is the more numerous and is, in fact, our commonest finch with about 7,000,000 pairs. It is a resident, although in winter its numbers are swollen by large numbers of visitors from northern Europe. The breeding male has a blue-grey head and neck; pink breast and cheeks; chestnut back, with white on its wings, tail and shoulders. The female is yellow-brown above, paler below, with a white wing-bar and white tail-sides. Chaffinches start to sing in February, but not all sing in the same way, and striking regional dialects have been recorded, especially among birds which winter here from the Continent (honestly!). Its most common call is its 'pink-pink' but it was its song which got it into trouble in the 19th century (and as far back as the medieval period) because of the part it could play in the singing contests which were such a part of contemporary tavern life. Caged birds were pitted against each other and judged not only on their ability to outlast opponents, but also on the number of different phrases they could introduce into their song in a set time, usually 15 minutes. Good singing birds were very valuable - and trapping had a noticeable effect upon wild populations - with birds changing hands for 20-50 shillings, a lot of money in Victorian times. Mabey describes the Chaffinch song as being a simple, three second burst with two or three notes repeated several times, followed by a more rapid terminal flourish known as the cadence ('tissi-cheweeo' I've seen it described as). The introductory notes, says Mabey, have been likened to a cricketer's run-up to the wicket, with the cadence as the bowling action. In early spring a chaffinch sometimes needs practice before managing to 'deliver the ball'. Its perky cheerfulness has been taken by some to epitomise Englishness, with Robert Browning, for example, in Home Thoughts From Abroad, wistfully summing up his feelings in the line:
'While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
In England - now!'

It is impossible to mistake a Chaffinch for a Bullfinch, which is why I find writing about the two birds so traumatic! When I was a young boy, out in the country with my parents and sister, my sister - who is 18 months older than myself (the age difference is significant!) - would insist that every Chaffinch we encountered was a Bullfinch. My frustration knew no bounds and lives with me yet, while my attempts to use field-guides to convince her of her 'mistake' were to no avail. It was only about three years ago that she admitted that she always knew the difference, but wanted to annoy me. She succeeded.

The Bullfinch - confusingly called the Blackcap in some parts of the country - is a truly handsome bird. It has bright salmon-pink under-parts, blue-grey back, black head and white rump. The female is brown-grey. They are quite shy birds and tend to withdraw quickly from human presence, leaving behind a soft, indrawn whistle, usually written down as 'deu', to indicate where they have gone. While the Chaffinch seems to be regarded with near universal affection, the Bullfinch is more of a 'villain', and has made enemies in many parts of the country. Indeed, it could be described as the only finch of economic importance in Britain. This is because in late winter and early spring it literally nips fruit trees in the bud. A single bird has been seen to eat the buds on a plum tree at the rate of 30 a minute, and it can be remarkably systematic in the way that it does so. Bullfinches enter orchards from nearby woods and hedgerows, attack the nearest trees first and penetrate by stages into the orchard, stripping each tree in turn. The bird's short, rounded bill, with especially sharp cutting edges, is excellently adapted for this purpose.

Environmentalists, however, have defended the Bullfinch, pointing out that it is possible for a commercial fruit tree to lose up to 50 per cent of its buds without the overall harvest being affected. Moreover, Bullfinches seem to be particularly attracted to certain fruit strains: they like Conference, Williams and Dr Jules pear varieties and are less partial to Hardy and Comice; Morello cherries are sought after! Nevertheless, in the mid-20th century, in some areas, the birds were deprived of protection, but culling was shown to be of questionable value, and today it is illegal to kill or trap Bullfinches (except under special licence) because of the recent disastrous downward trend in the British population.

The recent very hot, dry weather has made life very difficult for garden birds, so keep putting out lots of water for them. Incidentally, Bob Benton has reminded me of the importance (especially if we are to continue getting summers like this) of picking the optimum site for nest boxes. Ideally, the entrance hole should face north to east in a sheltered position out of the full sun, rain and prevailing wind.

Ken Sheard, Ken.sheard2 at ntlworld.com