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