By James Duncan
Learning and Engagement Officer
There can surely be few sights more wonderful in a British hedgerow or garden than that of a beautifully resplendent Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula). The male is a strikingly handsome bird, its glossy plumage a cross between colourful flamboyance and restrained besuited attire. Though rather eye-catching, the Bullfinch is also an unusual bird in its sheer rotundness. It looks eminently 'neckless', with a big head and stumpy, bulbous beak. It certainly appears somewhat 'front heavy' and it's quite conceivable this relates to its name - Bullfinch, as in 'bull-headed' construction. There are certainly a variety of other animals with 'bull' in their name that display similar defining characteristics. They're probably located most easily around woodland edges, though they can be tough to spot - they're a shy and reclusive bird that rarely venture out into the open for long. Their unobtrusive habits may well disguise them typically feeding in pairs or even small, loose flocks. They also have a staggeringly widespread range, the many described subspecies found all the way across Europe and Asia to the shores of the Pacific. The majority of British Bullfinches are sedentary, rarely moving far from their territories throughout the year, though they will venture further afield within the breeding season to take advantage of new feeding opportunities.
The Bullfinch may often be located by its song or contact calls. Not because either is particularly loud - if anything, the characteristics are similar to the behaviour of the bird itself. It just happens that the vocalisations may draw attention to an otherwise quiet species. Many of the notes produced are so muffled that there's little continuity in the song - most of the sound produced by Bullfinches seems fractured, tentative and nervous. What is particularly surprising is the Bullfinch was once highly valued as a cage bird. This seems preposterous considering the bird's perceived abilities in song. But, sadly for the Bullfinch, it proved a remarkable mimic with an astonishing propensity to learn. In Victorian times, Bullfinches exhibited an exceptional ability to copy musical tunes both played or whistled to them. In fact, they proved more competent at this than any other species and were highly desirable as a result. Of course, their innate beauty and placid, easy-going manner only escalated their desirability. It seems truly extraordinary that a bird with such a simple wild voice should display such an unrivalled ability to sing.
Though the Bullfinch is a widely distributed bird, it has struggled in modern Britain. We've lost around 40% of the total population since 1970, with the loss of hedgerows and scrubby habitat and reduction in woodland diversity largely to blame. Amazingly, it was once considered a serious orchard pest, a destroyer of fruit tree crops owing to its feeding on the flowering buds. Thousands were killed every year, though it's since been shown many commercial fruit trees can withstand a loss of more than half their buds without a harvest being affected. This of course intimates culling has been very much unnecessary. This negative opinion of them stretches all the way back to Tudor times and it's only in recent years that it's become illegal to either trap or kill a Bullfinch, owing to their significantly reduced abundance. In any case, the Bullfinch seems quite specific in its feeding requirements, typically opting for tree buds and flowers in late winter and spring, carefully selected insects for feeding young and a variety of seeds and berries throughout the remainder of the year. They also have a rather wonderful adaption, a food storage-sac in the base of the mouth that enables them to forage a greater distance from their hungry young - the only Finch to have such a thing.
Bullfinch female © Nicholas Watts