birding-aus regional differences in tameness

Subject: birding-aus regional differences in tameness
From: "Wim Vader" <>
Date: Thu, 13 Jan 2000 12:35:08 +0100
>Date: Thu, 13 Jan 2000 12:34:13 +0100
>From: Wim Vader <>
>Subject: regional differences in tameness
>Bcc: nel,annavader, marit, cyndie, polyglotta, saskia, chiel, hayo,
lexentitia, katjaarakelova, alicja, anabra, franz, gerhardcadee,
tadasbirutis, kathyconlan, hansblokpoel, judynew, michelle, marianne,
joergen, traudl, robb
>This is an interesting subject, and I have taken the liberty to copy an
earlier piece of mine, addressing just this subject in the case of one of
our common winter finches, the Bullfinch Pyrrhula pyrrhula. I start out
with the copy:
>       >
>>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 startlingly 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 it "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 influx 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
>                                               (written January 1998)
>In the correspondance after this was published, most people in W.Europe
noted that the Bullfinches there were still as wary as described by Cramp
et al., although there were a few stories of birds adapting to feeders in
gardens. so here clearly we have a regional difference, with the northern
birds much more unafraid of people than themore southern ones.
>There are other gradients, though. Here north birds like European
Blackbirds  or Wood Pigeons are quite wary forest birds, while e.g. in
Amsterdam the Blackbirds and Wood Pigeons are almost as bold as the
sparrows and feral pigeons. likewise, in the famous canals of Amsterdam the
Grey Herons, Coots and even Great Crested Grebes have become amazingly
unafraid, no doubt because for generations almost nobody has molested them,
so that people now mainly mean Food to these birds. The same difference
also occurs inside Holland: the 'rural' herons and grebes (in as far as
there still are rural areas in this  most densely populated country in
Europe) are clearly still more wary then the town birds also within the
>Another reginal difference, this one not all that easily explained, occurs
in European Robins (not a thrush, but a chat, as you know): here the
British subspecies is famously tame, 'resting on the gardener's spade',
while the birds of the continent, i.a. in Holland are not quite so tame,
and the ones at the northernmost edge of their range, just south of our
area, are wary forest birds.
>Then there are differences at still larger scale. Australian birds are so
much tamer than European ones as a rule, that even I could get nice bird
pictures in Oz, something that almost never happens here at home. Scores of
different birds ate out of my hand in New South Wales; here in N.Norway a
Common Gull may hurriedly snatch a piece of bread from your hand, but that
is as far as it goes.
>Here, as in New Zealand, and still more in the Antarctic, I think it is
the relative scarcity or even absence of large predators that allows the
birds to be less wary. It is probably also for that reason that here north
it is the seabirds at their virtually inaccessible cliff-colonies that
allow closest approach.
>Finally, there are some bird species that confound all logic by being
"absurdly tame" always and everywhere. Waxwings are a good example,
phalaropes another, Hawk Owls a third. Why this should be so, I am at a
loss to explain, although it is tempting enough to make up
plausible-sounding 'just-so-stories' for every individual case.
>                                       Wim Vader, Tromsø Museum
>                                       9037 Tromsø, Norway

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