Resident in Britain year-round, but easiest to spot in wintertime when the trees and shrubs lose their cover of leaves, the bullfinch is one of our rarer native birds. It is no friend to orchards in the spring, when it feeds on the fruit buds, but in winter it will eat seeds from feeders – so you may spot one in your garden if you’re lucky.
Bullfinches love dense thickets of scrub and thorn and keep very much to themselves. Sometimes you only know they are around when you hear the series of rusty hinge noises that constitutes their song. When the male bullfinch does appear, what a storming looker he is! A shiny black cap, bluish black wings and tail and a white rump contrasting with the striking rose pink of the breast sets this bird out as a real looker. The females are less striking, but still attractive, with a pale buff breast and cheeks.
The bullfinch population has declined by 36 per cent since 1967, but numbers have now begun to rise again. These birds are nearly always seen as a couple and some people believe they pair for life. Certainly they maintain a pair bond throughout the year. They breed across Britain and Ireland with a preference for mixed woodland, parks and large gardens. The nest, built in April by both birds, is made from fine twigs and lined with moss, lichens and very fine tree roots. It is usually in dense scrub 4–7 feet above the ground. Four or five eggs are laid in in May, greenish blue in colour with brown flecks at the blunt end. There is often a second brood in July. Incubation is 13 to 14 days, mainly by the female. The nestlings are fed by both parents and fly after about 14 days. The young are fed mostly on caterpillars.
The adult birds feed on tree seeds, weeds and berries and in late winter and early spring they eat the emerging buds of fruit trees and ornamental shrubs. A single bullfinch can strip a plum tree of buds at the rate of 30 buds per minute. This behaviour has led to their persecution in the past and contributed to their decline in the 1960s to the 1990s. Bullfinches will visit garden feeders in the winter, eating seeds and sunflower hearts, but never venture far from their thicket cover. You are lucky if you spot one in your garden. They sometimes form small flocks in the winter and this is often the best time to spot them, near to hedgerows or in mixed woodland.