Apart from a regrettable habit of eating fruit-tree buds, there is much to like about bullfinches. They are, for one thing, such exquisitely beautiful birds - the male’s warm pink breast is the colour of wild rose and his back a subtle azure shade of grey. His wife - and they do seem to pair for life - is a more restrained but equally lovely buff-lavender colour. Both have jet- black heads and a startlingly white rump, a visual signal evolved so they can follow each other when flying through the shady coppices and woods they love.
Bullfinches are shy and timid creatures and usually the first clue that they are about is a repeated soft and slightly sad whistle. Unlike nearly all our other finches, bullfinches seldom come to the bird table, and if you do get some it’s likely they’ll be winter visitors from northern Europe where they are less shy. These birds have brighter red breasts and a generally cleaner look. You can attract native bullies however, by leaving seed-bearing shrubs and flowers un-pruned through the winter, and last year a pair spent several days stripping seeds from coriander plants in a neglected corner of our herb patch. They feed much more slowly than most finches and contort their bodies into odd shapes as they twist their tails and stretch their necks to pick off individual seeds.
The bullfinch’s broad beak is second only in size amongst British finches to that of the hawfinch, but rather than for cracking cherry stones, it seems to be designed to manipulate seeds from soft fruit and for clipping off tree buds. Until the fifties flocks of bullfinches were so destructive in fruit growing areas that many thousands were trapped and shot every year.
The bullfinch is one of the few birds to actually have a book of fiction written about it. ‘Ben the Bullfinch’, published in 1957, was written by arguably our best ever writer of children’s nature stories, BB - who’s real name was Denys Watkins-Pitchford. BB was one of ours, living at Pytchley in Northamptonshire and became famous for ‘The Little Grey Men’ (the story of the last wild gnomes in England!). He was also a very fine artist, teaching art at Rugby School and illustrating all of his own books. Although he is a bit out of fashion now, first edition BB books are very collectable and some titles are still in print. If you know a youngster who’s interested in natural history, they will still love them I’m sure.
We were lucky to have a pair of bullies nest in the beech hedge just a few feet from our kitchen window a couple of years ago, which was remarkable for such a shy species. The male spent much time sitting quietly warbling to him self on a beanpole, just a few feet away from the little flat nest built out of thin roots. I left them completely undisturbed and they successfully raised a family of four.
(originally published in Four Shires Magazine)