Girton Birdwatch - May 2013
It has been difficult to concentrate on reading the paper in the 'garden room' recently for the 'smack' 'smack' of the male chaffinch throwing itself with some force against the window. It doesn't appear to hurt itself for this isn't an accidental collision but a real beak on glass attack which continues on and off for several hours. Most authorities agree that the chaffinch, which is aggressively territorial in the spring and mating season, mistakes its own reflection for a rival and is attempting to drive it off. The female chaffinch is also known occasionally to act in a similar way so this is not simply another example of 'typical male aggression'. Other bird species are also prone to engage in such behaviour.
Not so long ago most people asked to name the most common bird in Britain would probably have opted for the house sparrow (numbers of which have declined dramatically and puzzlingly in recent years) but in fact the first place for sheer numbers would have had to go to either the chaffinch or the blackbird. Until the regrettably widespread disappearance of so many of our hedgerows there would have been no contest, with the chaffinch probably emerging as the clear winner (there are about seven and a half million breeding pairs in the British Isles). So the male bird, with his slate-blue crown and neck, chestnut back and pinkish-brown underparts is a familiar and welcome sight in our gardens. Although primarily a woodland bird they are also found in a wide range of habitats and have adapted well to farm hedges, orchards, parks and gardens. The equally welcome female, although not so colourful, shares the same distinctive white wing-bar and shoulder patch.
The name 'Chaffinch', like 'finch', is from Old English and harks back to a time when these birds frequented barns, looking for seeds among the chaff. In the winter they join other finches, buntings and sparrows and form large flocks, feeding on arable land and stubble, sometimes forming vast chaffinch-only flocks, often all of the same sex. Indeed, Linnaeus (1707-72) gave the bird the scientific name coelebs, meaning 'unmarried', because of an unusual behaviour trait: in Scandinavia, where he lived, most female chaffinches migrate southwards in winter, leaving the lonely males behind. (It was Linnaeus, considered to be an organizational genius, who divided the natural world up into sections and sub-sections: classes, orders, genera and species and, while some of his suggestions met with opposition, what was accepted, and still applies, was his suggestion of binomial nomenclature for birds. Thus thrushes were given the generic name Turdus and the Song Thrush, for example, was allocated the specific name philomelos to become Turdus philomelos).
We often forget, when condemning (rightly) the widespread shooting of migrant birds passing over certain Mediterranean islands, that in the past our record so far as the treatment of birds was concerned, was equally shameful. In Victorian times chaffinches were prized as cage birds and kept for their prowess as singers in contests. Good singing birds were extremely valuable and some changed hands for as much as 20-50 shillings apiece, a small fortune by Victorian standards. Severe declines in population occurred in some areas due to over-trapping to feed this enthusiasm. The cruelty associated with these singing contests, and its moral implications, was explored by author and poet Thomas Hardy in his poem: 'The Blinded Bird'. It was widely believed that a finch sang louder and sweeter if deprived of its sight, and the usual method of obtaining this end was to stick hot needles into its eyes. Hardy's poem brings out the contrast between the brutality of this human action and the seeming forgiveness of nature, expressed through the beauty of the finch's song:
Who hath charity? This bird.
Who suffereth long and is kind?
Is not provoked, though blind
And alive ensepulchred?
Who thinketh no evil, but sings?
Who is divine? This bird.
I had just accustomed myself to the clattering of the chaffinch when I had an even more surprising visitor (or two). This time it was a pair of long-tailed tits who took it in turns to gently tap on the same window, providing me with the closest view I've ever had of these charming little birds. Although a long-tailed tit can measure almost six inches (15cm) from bill to tail-tip, by weight it is among the smallest of British birds and, like gold and firecrests, is highly vulnerable in cold weather. Given that long-tailed tits adhere to a largely insectivorous diet throughout the year they find little relief on the garden bird-table. Indeed, correspondents on the internet surmised that far from being aggressive behaviour the window-tapping of the tits was part of their hunt for small insects for food and spiders' webs for their nests. One respondent to this suggestion claimed that no insects or webs could be found on his/her windows - which could show how effective this behaviour is!
The nest built by the long-tailed tit is one of the most elaborate built by a British bird and a joy to behold. It comprises an intricate mix of moss, lichen and animal hair, the whole tied together with spider's web and lined with as many as 1,500 feathers. It is at this time of year that one encounters single or pairs of long-tailed tit in contrast to the large family groups of up to fifty characteristic of other seasons. Although the family group breaks down into breeding pairs a couple will often receive help in feeding their young from close relatives - particularly if the latter's own brood has failed - with up to eight helpers having been recorded.