from your antipodes (Bullfinches)

Subject: from your antipodes (Bullfinches)
From: "Wim Vader" <>
Date: Thu, 15 Jan 1998 14:34:28 +0100


Those who have read my regular "snapshots" from Tromsoe, N.Norway (69*50`N)
will know that I am very fond of Bullfinches, those large, calm,
"quietly-expensively dressed" finches with the tentative voice. They are
such a fixture of the gardens here in winter, that they here even have
taken over as "christmas-card bird" from the European Robin, that fills
this role further south in Europe.

Bullfinches have jet-black caps and faces and blackish wings and tails,
contrasting vividly with the starlingly white rump. The back is bluish
gray, and the breast is a very special reddish pink in the male, and an
elegant dove-grey in the female. The bill is short and strong, but more a
tool for cutting (Bullfinches are notorious for their damage to buds) than
for crushing. The subspecies in Scandinavia is quite a bit larger, to 16.5
cm than the birds in central Europe and Britain, and the colours seem to me
to be clearer and warmer.

In Cramp`s authoritative "Handbook of the birds of Europe, the Middle East,
and North Africa" (1994) the bullfinch is described as "secretive, staying
in cover and feeding unobtrusively" and "Shows little tendency to adapt
lifestyle and change traditional habitats, beyond quite minor degrees. Even
within human settlememts normally avoids contact with people, and does not
usually show itself on ground, or even flying in the open." These
descriptions fit our bullfinches well in summer, when they are so
unobtrusive that many people around here consider them to be exclusively
winter birds, although in reality they nest commonly in the area.

But in winter the picture is quite different! This winter we have even more
Bullfinches than normally, possibly because of an influz of wintering birds
from Kola or areas further east. In my garden I hear the tentative whistles
of the bullfinches as soon as I come out the door, usually around 08 15 and
in pitch dark, and I think they are already feeding on the sunflower seeds
then. In the middle of the day there may be as many as 8-10 birds around;
they are able to retrieve seeds from my hanging feeder, but prefer to
forage on the ground below the feeder, hopping clumsily around without much
animosity, although every now and then one lunges with open beak at its
neighbour, who usually retreats at once. On disturbal they retreat to the
birch and rowan trees, but often they just feed on when I walk past at
about 2 m distance.

Most of the Bullfinches at my feeder are clearly paired, and according to
the literature this is typical: bullfinches seem to pair for life,
different from most other finches. As described earlier, courtship feeding
of the female by the male can often be observed, I think year round, but do
not have careful notes to prove this.

Next week we`ll have Soldagen (Sun-day), and from that day onwards the days
will get lighter quite quickly. A fixture of these sunny periods are
bullfinches, mostly males, sitting high up in the trees (All is relative,
none of our trees is taller than 5m!) and virtually glowing in the
sunshine, in the posture one usually sees them in the Christmas cards. I
have no idea whether this is some sort of advertisement behaviour; I have
read nothing about it in the literature. At any rate it is a wonderful
sight, these reddish glowing colours in a still mostly black-and-white

In summer the birds are , as told, very unobtrusive, but if you know the
calls, you notice that they are still quite common. But Bullfinches don`t
have much of a song (although unexpectedly in captivity they often learn to
whistle tunes; they were for that reason commonly held in cages earlier,
especially in Germany). Nor do they show the vehement territorial defense
of e.g. the thrushes or bluethroats. All that sort of ostentatious
behaviour is "not done" in bullfinch society, and this is completely in
tune with the first impression these quietly beautiful birds give. They are
definitely among my favourite small birds "up here".

One question: Have bullfinches become more common and less wary also
elsewhere in Europe in winter, or does the description in the Handbook
still apply for most of Europe?

                                                Wim Vader, Tromsoe Museum
                                                9037 Tromsoe, Norway

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