Bullfinches are a real treat when seen visiting bird feeders.

Wed, 07/06/2017 - 12:52 -- jim

The males are a striking bright pinkish-red on the front, fading to frosty white under the tail, and contrasting with a black cap and dark midnight-blue wings and tail.

Females show the same overall pattern, but where the males are pink the females are grey-buff, and both males and females have a large white patch above the tail which is visible in flight. In the summer months juveniles are sometimes seen; these also have dark wings and tails, but they are otherwise grey-brown, without the black cap of the adults. This gives them a very different appearance, with a round dark eye in a plain face, but they can be recognised by their round-headed shape and short bills.

Their preferred foods are seeds, flower buds, and shoots, though they will also take insects and caterpillars, particularly to feed their young in the nest. Their predilection for eating flower buds mean they were once a major pest in fruit growing areas, severely affecting crops of plum, cherry and apple orchards in particular. Back in the 1960s licences were issued to destroy Bullfinches that were damaging crops, and many thousands were killed on some farms.

Being used to feeding on hanging fruit and flowers, in gardens they favour hanging seed feeders, and their legs are relatively small so they prefer a solid perch to sit on. They can be shy, and tend to stay near thick cover, so are most likely to be seen in gardens that can be accessed via hedges or undergrowth. They are not seen often at bird feeders in autumn as this is when fruits and seeds are abundant in the wider countryside. By midwinter these natural food supplies are running low, and there is a small peak of Bullfinches in gardens during the lean months of January and February, followed by another peak in June when adults bring their new offspring to visit bird feeders.

Although once common enough to be thought of an agricultural pest, Bullfinch numbers declined significantly in the 1970s, and at this time they were were red-listed as a bird of conservation concern. This severe decline was thought to be mainly due to agricultural intensification, including the loss of hedgerows and scrubby areas which they need for nesting. Fortunately, numbers of Bullfinches started to rise again at the start of the 21st century, and as a result they moved from the red list to the amber list; in recent years the number of Bullfinches visiting gardens seems to be increasing.