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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:

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