Life is a cabaret for the colourful character – the lovely Chaffinch
T’S HARD TO miss Chaffinches at the moment. Go into just about any UK woodland and the colourful males will be filling the air with their short but effervescent song, which consists of an accelerating, crescendo rattle followed by a trill. It’s a cheerful sound, as breezy as the spring air, one of the simpler British bird songs to learn because it is one phrase endlessly repeated, like a slogan. If you take a moment actually to watch one of the singers, you will also appreciate how gaudy the male Chaffinches are at this time of year, with their salmon-pink breasts and cheeks and intense blue-grey on the cap.
In truth, there is an element of kitsch to the plumage, especially in the sunshine. It’s probably the pink hue; Blue and Great Tits, every bit as brightly-coloured, don’t look cheap or tacky. There is an unaffected simplicity to a Chaffinch’s song, and, enjoying it, is similarly an uncomplicated pleasure. While Blackbirds string together melodic and intricate phrases, that would make a classical music buff marvel, and while birds such as Wrens grab your attention with their sheer power and clarity, Chaffinches are easy to dismiss. Their phrase is like the hook of a pop song, short and memorable, a sugary treat to a Blackbird’s feast. You might feel that it is unfair to pronounce Chaffinches as cheesy – but that’s what I’m going to do anyway – since both costume and song are faintly from the end- of-pier cabaret part of the spectrum, while the Blackbird is from the Albert Hall, smartly black-clad and earnest. As such you might be tempted to think that a Chaffinch just gets up and sings, like a karaoke performer. You might not think that the processes that move a Chaffinch from the dun-coloured seedeater in woodland winter flocks, to the tuneful soloist holding territory in the brilliant green canopy in spring, is a long one. But you’d be wrong.
For all its simplicity, the stage show of the Chaffinch is the culmination of months of preparation. Indeed, it begins either in the dead of winter, for an adult bird, or even further back in the case of a youngster. Preparation almost certainly begins when a male bird is not yet out of the nest. For, despite its evident simplicity, a Chaffinch song needs to be learnt – or at least, perfected. Every Chaffinch is born with a sort of rough template of how it ought to sing – a template that prevents it sounding like a different species entirely. In order to produce a recognisable Chaffinch song, with the trilling parts perfected and with a proper flourish at the end, a young bird must listen to, and copy, other members of its species. Imagine a young bird in the nest listening intently to both its father and its father’s neighbours while they are still singing in midsummer, and then continuing to eavesdrop as the youngster itself leaves the nest and breaks out on its own. Young male Chaffinches are students of song. They are apprentices at the feet of senior birds, remaining quiet themselves, but each with a voice inside, little time-bombs of vocalisation. They don’t make themselves heard until the crisp days of early spring. But even then they are still students. What is known as their ‘sensorimotor’ phase begins, when they finally create some noise and compare their own song output to the template in their head. They also continue to listen to the birds around them and, after much trial and error, their own song begins to crystallise. In the early spring it can indeed be hilarious listening to first-year Chaffinches, as they seem to get everything wrong, typically beginning with a loud and confident trill, only for A male Chaffinch bends over backwards to belt out its song
CHAFFINCH Fringilla coelebs Length: 14-16cm Wingspan: 24.5-28.5cm UK numbers: 6.2 million pairs Habitat: Trees, woodland, hedges, parks and gardens Diet: Seeds, insects during summer months
Young male Chaffinches are students of song. They are apprentices at the feet of senior birds, remaining quiet themselves, but each with a voice inside, little time-bombs of vocalisation
IN FULL SONG Scientific name: