Take on Nature: Secretive bullfinch is 'fairest of all wildborn birds'

A bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula) – the male is especially exotic looking
Stephen Colton

RECENT close-up views of a pair of bullfinches highlighted nature's resourcefulness and my need to clear out an unsightly gutter, as it was there I observed both birds feeding on the seed heads of various sprouting grasses.

Generally shy and secretive, the birds afforded me unusually good views of their stocky colourful frames. The bullfinch, most people think, takes its name from its plump, heavily built shape and bull-like neck. Both birds have a stout grey-black bill, black wings, nape and crown, along with a distinctive white rump which is very noticeable in flight. The male is especially exotic looking, with its reddish rose breast and belly, whereas the underparts of the female are a more muted greyish brown.

Bullfinches have a varied diet which includes seeds, insects, grain and especially berries and tree buds, something which in the past brought them into serious conflict with the fruit farming industry. In 16th century England and Wales the birds were considered so serious a pest in orchards that they were listed and targeted in the 1566 Act for the preservation of Grayne, with a bounty paid of "one peny for the head of every Bulfynche or other Byrde that devoureth the blowth of Fruite".

Administration of this was the responsibility of local churchwardens and parish officers. In various church accounts of the time, references are made to payments for "malps, hoops and nopps", all colloquial names, coming from an old name for the bullfinch, "alpe". The method regularly used to catch the birds was the placing of lime on the twigs and branches of favoured perching sites.

In later times Bullfinches were desired as captive birds for their beautiful plumage, with many also believing that the caged bird could be trained to mimic music.

Although the bullfinch is fully protected under wildlife legislation in Ireland, in parts of England it may be still be killed under licence, for the purpose of, "preventing serious damage to agriculture".

The bird's Latin scientific name, Pyrrhula pyrrhula, comes from the Greek adjective ‘purrhos' meaning ‘flame/red coloured', while its Irish, corcán coille gives us ‘purple bird of the wood'.

Unobtrusive by nature, the bird's low-pitched, melancholy call is often the only indication of its presence in a thicket or bush. Bullfinches, often seen in pairs and known to remain faithful partners for life, usually nest in shrubs, such as hawthorn and blackthorn, making a flimsy nest out of twigs and moss. Two broods of four or five young are typical during the breeding season. In winter, resident birds are joined by other bullfinches from the continent.

The bird is widespread throughout Ireland and although data from The Bird Atlas 2007-11: The Breeding and Wintering Birds of Britain and Ireland (2013), revealed some noticeable regional changes to bullfinch distribution, figures show there has been little change in overall breeding range with"some gains in western Ireland".

Where declines have occurred in parts of south-east England and north-east Scotland, causes are thought to "include deteriorating habitat quality… and the impact of sparrowhawks".

I always feel privileged when bullfinches reveal themselves so openly as this pair did. It feels as though they're appealing to our better nature, to appreciate their colour, fidelity and handsome countenance.

Poet and Cork native Francis Duggan, now living in Australia, writes of the bullfinch that although, "The orchardist does not like them for him they do not please'', they "wear the colours favoured most by kings" and he further describes the bullfinch as "One of the fairest of all wildborn birds". On seeing them in full clothing, it's difficult to disagree.

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