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The Bullfinch

 29 Jan 2019  Blog

The bullfinch is a small and colourful species of bird that is found across the UK. In years gone by, it was a popular pet bird, as it was able to imitate a flute or whistle. It could often be found in a cage in people's living rooms for entertainment. In fact, people would play a special flute to the bird to encourage it to sing!

In modern times, the ethics and morality of keeping a wild bird in a cage have been justifiably questioned and the bullfinch is back in its rightful place in the wild. Sadly, UK bullfinch populations are 36% lower than they were in 1967.

Bullfinch bird

© Ondrejprosicky / Adobe Stock

This is being investigated by the British Trust for Ornithology as part of the Beyond the Maps research programme into wild bird populations. It is believed the decline has been caused by a loss of the species' natural habitat, due to agricultural intensification.

The diversity of woodlands has declined and the surviving natural habitat is of a lower quality. Today, in conservation terms, the bullfinch is listed as an "amber" species as a result of the decline in the breeding population. This category means it has suffered a population decline in the past but is beginning to recover. However, it remains a cause for concern.

Although bullfinch numbers declined sharply on farmland between 1977 and 1982, the numbers began to stabilise in the late 1980s. Indications are that the population is slowly increasing again in the 21st century, although it currently remains 36% lower than it was in 1967.


Bullfinch features

The bullfinch gets its name as a result of its front-heavy, bull-headed appearance. A large finch, with a compact body and a solid, chunky head, the bullfinch is sometimes mistaken by amateur bird-watchers for the chaffinch, as they have similar colouring.

The male bullfinch is brighter in general than the female. Both male and female birds have a black head and face, with a black tail, grey back and white rump. While the male has a bright pinky-red underbelly, the female is a more neutral, greyish-buff shade underneath. Juvenile birds can be recognised by their brown head and face.

Their relative, the chaffinch, is a similar colour, with the male sporting a reddish underbelly, although he has a grey cap, rather than the bullfinch's black head. While the two species can look similar at a distance and in flight, the chaffinch is around 5.7 inches long, while the bullfinch tends to be longer at around 6.4 inches.


Species' origins

The bullfinch was first listed officially in 1758 by the Swedish botanist and zoologist Carl Linnaeus, in the tenth edition of his book, Systema Naturae - one of his major works. A UK-resident bird, its Latin name, Pyrrhula Pyrrhula, is derived from the Greek word "purrhoulas", which translates as “worm eating bird”.

The species has an extremely large range and covers the same regions as the great spotted woodpecker, with its habitat stretching across Ireland and northern Europe, all the way to Japan.

There are size differences between the UK-resident bullfinches and those from farther afield. The Scandinavian variety is much larger than the one from Britain and the birds from further north are heavier in general.


Habitat and lifestyle

The bullfinch prefers mixed woodland areas, coniferous forests, agricultural farmland and parks, although it can be found venturing into gardens on occasion - they tend to live in blackthorn and hawthorn and also in orchards. However, it has been described as a "shy" bird and is not found in areas of open space, such as coastal environments or upland habitats.

The species is a relatively rare sighting in private gardens. According to the British Trust for Ornithology's Birdwatch scheme, only 10% of people taking part have reported seeing a bullfinch in their own garden.

Its diet in the wild consists mainly of seeds and plants such as elm, ash and common nettles. They will also dine on fruits and the buds from fruit trees - the source of their main food supply in the spring and summer. They also enjoy fleshy fruits, such as raspberries.

They will forage for insects and worms (mainly to feed their young) and can be encouraged to enter gardens when the feeders contain sunflower and other seeds. They will enjoy oil-rich sunflower hearts and raisins on your bird table.

Bullfinches generally maintain a pair-bonding throughout the year. They lay four or five eggs in their nest, which is built between four and seven feet above the ground from twigs, lichens and moss, with a layer of fine roots. They may have two or three broods during the nesting season.

Today, the bullfinch is showing breeding gains in western Ireland, northern and western regions of Scotland and on some islands of the Inner Hebrides, according to the British Trust for Ornithology's Bird Atlas.

The organisation is studying the data gathered through the Beyond the Maps scientific research programme to find out why some places seem to attract more bullfinches than others. The aim is to use the data to help understand the species' breeding habits and to help in any way possible to assure its survival in the future.

When growing your own fruit trees, make sure the fruit is kept safe from the birds by using Henry Cowls' fruit cages. Please contact us on 01326 221514 for further details of our products.

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