The Urban Countryside – The Bullfinch

The  Bullfinch, Outlaws of the Woods.

The brief shower of rain had just finished and I was standing by the kitchen sink tactfully trying to ignoring the pile of neatly stacked dishes that were waiting to be washed. A bright flash of red from the trees had caught my attention and I slowly opened the window and waited patiently for a few minuets. Cautiously a pair of Bullfinches emerged from the tree and landed on the Docks in the wildflower edge at the back of my garden. They gently plucked and ate the seeds and thankfully left the apple tree alone.

These birds are scarce visitors to my garden and despite their bright plumage can be surprisingly difficult to spot. The male is a beautiful bird with a rosy pink face and breast topped by a neat black cap. The female is dull brown in colour and this helps to hide her   from predators while she is incubating the eggs. Usually when they are feeding they are generally silent unlike other birds that constantly sing and call. Benson who wrote a book on “Our Irish Songbirds” in 1889 states that he met a keen watcher of birds who shared the following observation with him. He was looking at a pair of Bullfinches feeding along a hedgerow. They made no sound except when the male got more than 20 feet ahead of the female. Then he would give a sharp call to see where she had got to.

Their nest is built in low trees and bushes and our native hedgerows are ideal habitats for them. The main nesting season is between late April to mid July and they generally raise two or three broods during the breeding season. They mate for life and can be seen in pairs throughout the year. This must create a very strong bond and a strange story is told about a pair of caged Bullfinches. After the male died the females plumage turned all black as if she was in mourning. After one year she shed her feathers again and resumed her normal colour.

This tall tale might not be as far fetched as you think. Bullfinches are prone to melanisim, a tendency to have a high proportion of black in their feathers. Completely black birds have sometimes been recorded in the wild although I have never met anyone who has seen one. Diet can also play a part and captive birds that were fed entirely on hemp seeds eventually turned black. In the wild they feed on seeds, nuts and berries but their fondness for buds leads to fatal clashes with the fruit grower. A pair of Bullfinches can strip the buds from an apple tree in one visit and you can imagine what damage a whole family could do. This can be avoided by placing your fruit bushes under netting and making a realistic looking scarecrow. Or on a fine day you can also place your unruly teenager on a chair with their hand held console or phone. This is a win win situation as they get some fresh air, make lots of noise and keep all the birds away.

The Bullfinch is a common resident bird( Estimated at 100,000 pairs) throughout much of Ireland but can be easily overlooked because of its habit of frequenting dense cover. H.E. Stewart writing in 1897 backs up this view when he states that” In Ireland is not meet up so commonly on account of its shy and retire habits, and its love for the densely wooded parts, it is commonly looked upon as much rarer bird than really is”. Birdwatch Irelands Garden Bird Survey that runs each Winter found that the Bullfinch has been recorded in 26% of Irish gardens. The Bullfinch was also known by the colourful name of “Red hoop”. This name derived from its call that country people thought sound like “Hoop, Hoop, Hoop”. In Irish it is called Corcran Coille, that translates literally as purple outlaw of the woods. Does anyone remember this or any other colloquial names?

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