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THE BULLFINCH
IN CUMBRIA

  • The Bullfinch is not particularly common in Cumbria, although it is fairly widely distributed throughout the lowland areas. Nationally, it has suffered a serious decline in recent years and Bullfinches are now a cause of conservation concern; the main reasons are probably hedgerow loss and increasing numbers of Sparrowhawks.
  • For many years it was the enemy of fruit-growers in March as they turned to buds of fruit trees. In autumn, the seeds of Ash and Elm are important in their diet, but in spring, if the Ash and Elm crop had run out (Ash has good years and bad), Bullfinches would feed naturally on the buds of shrubs like Hawthorn and Sallow, but cultivated fruit trees make an excellent alternative when available.
  • In the sixteenth century, there was a bounty of a penny per bird and more recently in parts of Britain with orchards it was permitted to cull them under licence. This is no longer allowed; in any event the damage is rarely serious as recent research shows that particular varieties only are affected and more than half the buds would have to be taken to reduce the crop of fruit.
  • Bullfinches are rather shy birds and their presence is first given away by the contact call of a whistled note at steady intervals. Avoiding contact with people, they were once elusive in gardens. Hedgerow loss means that they have grown more accustomed in recent years to the availability of seeds at feeding stations, being especially fond of sunflower seed.
  • The strong muscular head and beak is ideal for feeding on hard seeds, but the rounded shape of the beak makes it difficult for them to pick seeds up from the floor. In late June 2005, a pair brought the juvenile, photographed below, to our bird feeders. The adults were a bit bemused, but the youngster happily tucked in. Having the dish on the feeder seems to help this species. In the succeeding days the adults quickly followed their off-spring's example and made regular visits to feed, the male often keeping watch on top of the feeders.
  • A male Bullfinch in breeding condition is a sight to behold - vivid pink-vermilion underside contrasting with black and grey. The female is more subtly attractive (see photo above). With either sex, the use of binoculars should enable an easily missed feature of their plumage to be seen - the vivid deep pink feather where the black wing tertials meet the grey body (see arrow on photo).
  • Juveniles are well worth seeking out - late June/early July seems to be a good time. The juvenile doesn't have the black cap and the wingbars are a delightful salmon pink rather than grey/white; the tertial pink is also just about visible on the juvenile photographed in my garden in 2005 (see below).