by Paul Cormacain
I SEEM to be seeing more than my fair share of bullfinches of late. It may be one of our most colourful birds, but it never seems to flaunt its beauty, and can be hard enough to see. Yet every day we have a pair in the garden, even two pairs at times. When out and about in the countryside there always seems to be a bullfinch or two about.
The bullfinch is one of our most colourful birds, with the male more striking than the female. The head is bullet shaped with a jet black cap. Its bill is stout and broad and not loved by some, but more of that anon. The wings and tail are black, and the wings have a conspicuous white bar. The rump is pure white, making for instant and certain identification. The sides of the neck, breast and flanks are rosy pink. The female is browner grey on the underparts, and lacks the nice rose colour. It is generally a bit duller than the male.
In one of my bird books, published just over fifty years ago, the claim is made that the northern Scottish and northern Irish bullfinches are quite rare, but that they are the same as the English and Welsh birds. European birds are different, and rarely come into the north of Ireland and Scotland. But I have to say that none of my friends would confirm this, and another book on birds seems to claim that the bullfinches from Ireland are the same as the ones living in China. Some more research is called for, or perhaps more up to date books are needed.
Whatever bullfinches are coming into our garden are very striking, very handsome. Yet this bird has made many enemies over the years, although I personally would not be antagonistic towards them. Perhaps they do harm some of the fruit trees but I am not aware of any major problem. But in other parts the bullfinch has many enemies.
In late winter and early spring the bullfinch attacks fruit which is forming. One piece of research shows that a bird can eat the buds on a plum tree at the rate of thirty per minute. Is the poor creature hungry, or just starving?
Many fruit growers complain about it, and no doubt many of them do treat the bird badly when no one is looking. Hundreds of years ago there was a bounty paid for escorting a bullfinch off this earth. The amount of the bounty was the princely sum of one penny, 'old' penny it must be said.
Another set of old bird books, published in 1938, has four authors, among them a guy called Norman Ticehurst. Norman's place in ornithological history is assured, as it was he who recorded for posterity the shooting of no less than fifty bullfinches in a garden in Suffolk in one season. I wonder did the owner collect his fifty old pence!
Nothing is ever black and white, and the terror bullfinch does good as well as eat fruit buds. For most of the year the bullfinch eats many seeds of weeds, and among these weeds are many of the injurious kind. The bird helps to keep nettles under control, likewise ragwort, dock, thistles, groundsel, dandelion and plantain.
The bullfinch likes the larvae of the winter moth, and the winter moth is known as an enemy of fruit growers. Bannerman writes of the bullfinch devouring the larvae of lepidoptera, coleopteran and diptera as if that was a good thing and balanced out eating fruit seed and buds. But it is not quite that straight forward, for the insects give pleasure as well!
Other aspects of the life of the bullfinch. It has been prized for a long time as a caged bird, although thankfully that old habit of caging birds is dying out. It was found that this bird, so shy in the wild, became very tame in captivity. It could be taught to copy a simple tune, and it showed extraordinary facility in doing so. So it was smart as well as beautiful!
There may be more bullfinches about this year. Keep an eye open for them, but remember that they are quite shy birds mostly, and sometimes you may only catch a glimpse of them as they try to get away from humans.
Thursdays in June - RSPB guided walk at Portrnore Lough, at 7pm, details 028 9049 1547
Saturdays in June and July - RSPB dragonfly watching at Portmore Lough, details 028 9049 1547
Saturday 18th June: - Lisburn RSPB is off to lovely Rathlin, all welcome, contact David McCreedy on 028 40626125. National Trust is having an archaeology tour at Mount Stewart. Give them a call.
Sunday 19th June - Creepy Crawly trail, at Colin Glen Forest Park, at 11am, meet same of the mini beasts that live there. and find out more from 028 9061 4115.
Wednesday 22nd June - RSPB bat talk/walk at Belfast Harbour Reserve, at 8.30pm, call 028 9049 1547 for details
Sunday 26th June - Guided Walk at the Umbra Nature Reserve with Wildlife Trust, 2pm, contact Trust on 028 4483 0282.
Wednesday 29th June - Wildlife Walk around Craigavon Lakes, at 7.30pm, details from Oxford Island on 028 3832 2205.