Dis­cover finches

These colour­ful birds are spe­cial guests at gar­den feed­ers. Adrian Thomas looks at how to help them in win­ter and be­yond

Garden Answers (UK) - - Contents -

These colour­ful birds are spe­cial guests at gar­den feed­ers. Meet the fam­ily mem­bers and find out what they love to eat

We’re not blessed with many gaudy birds in Bri­tain, so those that pos­sess some paint-pal­ette splashes are to be trea­sured. In this re­spect there are few bet­ter-look­ing birds than the finch fam­ily. We’re lucky, then, that three finch species are very fa­mil­iar in our gar­dens; another four are scarcer but still fairly fre­quent vis­i­tors. Be­tween them, they in­ject greens, reds, or­anges, yel­lows and pinks into our world, and the fact they do so at our bird ta­bles and feed­ers means we can feast our eyes while they fill their bel­lies! The most wide­spread is the chaffinch – vis­it­ing some 40% of our gar­dens ac­cord­ing to this year’s RSPB Big Gar­den Bird­watch. In­ter­est­ingly, that the fur­ther north and west you are, the greater your chance of see­ing them, with sight­ings in 60% of Scot­tish gar­dens and 66% in North­ern Ire­land. The old say­ing, ‘Sep­a­rat­ing the wheat from the chaff’, gives a clue as to the ori­gin of its name. This is a bird that for­ages for bits of food in the fields af­ter the grain has been har­vested. In our gar­dens, it’s not the most adept at cling­ing to bird feed­ers, and so is much more likely to feed on the ground be­neath, where small groups can gather, once again pick­ing around in the chaff.

Small but feisty

How­ever, in terms of sheer num­bers in gar­dens, the chaffinch has now been over­taken by the goldfinch. This red-faced stun­ner might only be recorded in about a third of gar­dens, but where it oc­curs it can gather in flocks of 10, 20 or even more. It may be one of the small­est of finches, but it’s sur­pris­ingly feisty, bark­ing raspy calls at other goldfinches or even larger birds that dare to try to land on the bird feeder that it’s oc­cu­py­ing. ‘This is mine!’ is the clear mes­sage. Un­til only about 20 years ago, the goldfinch was a rel­a­tively un­com­mon win­ter bird in the Bri­tish coun­try­side, let alone in gar­dens, with a large part of our breed­ing pop­u­la­tion spend­ing their win­ter hol­i­days wan­der­ing the trees and hedgerows of south­ern France and Spain. Now, thanks to all our gar­den hand­outs, it en­joys a stay­ca­tion in­stead! The third most com­mon finch in gar­dens is the green­finch, or at least it was un­til tragedy struck. A dis­ease called tri­chomono­sis jumped across the ‘species bar­rier’ from doves and pi­geons about 10 years ago, and the green­finch pop­u­la­tion has gone down ev­ery year since. Birds be­come list­less and puffed up, lin­ger­ing at bird­feed­ers and on the ground un­der­neath, un­able to swal­low food but still try­ing. Their pres­ence only serves to spread the dis­ease to other green­finches.

De­vel­op­ing re­sis­tance

Maybe some green­finches will man­age to de­velop re­sis­tance to the dis­ease, but for now the prob­lem is caus­ing a down­ward spi­ral in pop­u­la­tion num­bers. In the Big Gar­den Bird­watch this year the green­finch slumped to 18th in the list of gar­den birds. The good news is that some of our scarcer finches are do­ing well. The siskin, for ex­am­ple, was once a very rare gar­den visi­tor, but two things changed that. Firstly, the breed­ing pop­u­la­tion (once re­stricted to up­land pine forests) spread south­wards, tak­ing ad­van­tage of ma­tur­ing forestry plan­ta­tions. Once the trees are old enough to pro­duce cones, they pro­vide all-im­por­tant sum­mer seeds for the siskins, and from there it’s only a short hop into gar­dens. The other fac­tor was that gar­den­ers started feed­ing peanuts in red mesh bags. The the­ory is that the siskin mis­took these for large pine cones, came to in­ves­ti­gate, and found that they were some­thing dif­fer­ent but still very tasty! Mesh bags are now a thing of the past, hav­ing fallen from favour be­cause too many birds were get­ting their feet trapped, but for­tu­nately the siskins have now learnt to visit bird feed­ers in­stead. Another finch at last start­ing to do bet­ter is the red­poll, ‘poll’ mean­ing ‘head’. Their num­bers in the wider coun­try­side crashed dra­mat­i­cally in the 1970s and 80s, but small flocks are now learn­ing to visit seed feed­ers, pro­vid­ing a wel­come shift in be­hav­iour and hence for­tunes. There are two other finches to look for. The dap­per bullfinch is still a reg­u­lar in some gar­dens but, be­ing rather portly, is most likely to be seen on a bird ta­ble than cling­ing to a feeder. It’s a shy bird of thick­ets and hedgerows, so bullfinches are mostly seen in ru­ral gar­dens. The other is a win­ter visi­tor from Scan­di­navia, the bram­bling, whose num­bers here are de­ter­mined by how good the crop of beech seeds is. If there is a bounty of ‘beech­mast’ in woods, the bram­bling doesn’t need to ven­ture into gar­dens. If there’s lit­tle nat­u­ral food, they fol­low the chaffinches in, and in­di­vid­u­als can linger in one gar­den for days on end, adding a bit of north­ern Scandi spice.

Chaffinches for­age around in the chaff of wheat fields – and be­neath gar­den feed­ers

With luck you may see a red­poll

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