It is easy to forget about the bullfinch, and that’s just the way they want it.
They are timid characters that flee if humans get too near. Sometimes the only way of knowing that a bullfinch is close by is by hearing their weak, melancholic call from inside a hedgerow.
It is easy to think that bullfinches are in decline; I decided to investigate further.
Bullfinches are listed as amber on the BTO conservation status list, meaning their endangerment is a cause for concern.
Their population suffered a serious decline from 1977-1982, but by the mid-80s, it began to ease.
Although there are thought to be almost 40% fewer bullfinches now than in 1967, I am happy to report that numbers have been steadily growing since 2000.
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Visiting bullfinches in my garden is a rare treat, however, I can report that I often spot small groups of them when I am walking in the countryside.
They are easily recognisable due to their rose-pink breast, black cap, and black and white wings. The female looks similar but her breast colour is muted.
They are sturdy looking birds, probably where their name stems from, and their bills are thick and robust.
Why Bullfinch Numbers Declined
It is difficult to know the exact reasons, but; intensive farming practices and deteriorating habitat quality seem to be the main culprits.
Bullfinches are shy birds that like to hide in dense vegetation such as hedgerows.
Farmers need to make every inch of their land pay and cut back thriving borders in readiness for planting.
Conservationists are lobbying to incentivise farmers into making space for wild plants at the edges of their land. It will provide food and cover for insects and birds and benefits the earth.
As a nation, we like to keep our gardens tidy, but often they’re TOO tidy for the birds. We cut back hedges and bushes so severely that there is nowhere safe left for the bullfinches to roost.
Our fondness for using herbicides also manages to kill off the weeds and plant cover on which the birds are so reliant.
The relationship between bullfinches and orchards
Bullfinches love the soft seeds from ash trees, nettles, docks, and raspberries. When they are in scare supply, the birds find orchards.
The buds of fruit trees are tasty and bigger than their usual food. However, they are less nutritious; bullfinches have to eat them in huge quantities to feel satisfied.
A small flock of bullfinches are known to have spent a whole day in an orchard, stripping the branches bare.
And, they’re not too picky either; they head for pears; the buds are biggest, but soon move on to apples, plums, and gooseberries. The birds are the bane of fruit growers lives and are called plague spreaders!
Back in the 16th century…
It is hard to believe that bullfinches once had a price on their head. King Henry VIII grew so tired of the damage they created in orchards that he offered a penny for every bird killed.
Even in the modern-day in the most extreme cases, it is possible to get a licence to control their numbers.
How we can stop the decline in the bullfinch population
Bullfinches visit our gardens if they have somewhere safe for them to hide. Their call is heard from inside long runs of hedges, their favourite being at least 3-metres high where they are out of harm’s way.
Plant shrubs and bushes that yield lots of blossom, buds, and berries.
Pyracantha, honeysuckle, and guelder are particular favourites. Bullfinches rotate, stripping each of their berries just as the next one starts to bloom.
Bullfinches enjoy regular baths, so if blessed with running water, expect to see the birds splashing in and drinking from it all year round. The sound of flowing water attracts their attention; they particularly like it as it won’t freeze.
Britain is home to around 200,000 breeding pairs of resident bullfinches, a number which increases during the winter as their cousins from Continental Europe choose to migrate here for our warmer climate.
That may seem a lot, but just a few decades ago, there were almost twice as many spread right across our shores.
The decline of bullfinches seems to be reversing. We should all take steps to ensure we don’t lose this beautifully marked bird forever.