Bullfinches – a welcome spring surprise

I was watching a bullfinch hopping around in the garden this morning. A welcome distraction from my exercise bike torture, he was cheerfully moving around the unmown grass, occasionally checking out the peach and pear trees.

They’ve always been a favourite of mine and I was reminded how their obvious characteristics of striking plumage and fondness for fruit blossom have so often been their downfall in the past.

The Victorians trapped and kept them in cages, where they would attempt to teach the poor little prisoners to whistle songs; they are apparently talented mimics. But this was small beer compared to the commercial fruit growers who trapped and killed them in their hundreds. The impact of bullfinches on fruit crops is unclear – they undoubtedly take the early buds, but commercial fruit trees can lose up to 50% of their buds without the overall harvest being affected (source Birds Britannica by Mark Cocker und Richard Maybey). This seems intuitively correct as fruit trees have evolved side by side with bullfinches and all gardeners are familiar with the phenomenon of the June drop – where the tree ditches a percentage of its crop to give the remaining fruit a better chance of success. Certainly our experience has been that the frost is the biggest single factor in determining overall crop success of our peaches, pears, cherries, apples, blueberries and currants.

Birds Britannica cites an example of a Herefordshire garden culling 200 bullfinches a year, yet at the end the bullfinch population in the surrounding countryside was virtually identical. All that effort, suffering and tragedy for nothing. It reminds me of the cursed badger cull in the UK – the crime is unproven and the punishment ineffective.

Some years we notice more finches in the garden than others. This may be because their winter diet has been shown to be largely ash keys – so perhaps ash die back (Chalara) is having an impact here? Our ash trees seem far more chalara resistant than the ones we remember from the UK, but they have bad years and better years, perhaps forcing the bullfinches onto the fruit in the lean years.

Either way my heart was lifted by the sight of this chunky, jolly bird strutting around in our tangled lawn. They will always have a place of safety at Le Moulin while we are here. Maybe I could get them to learn to simple tunes with my penny whistle?

 

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