Breathtakingly Beautiful: The Bullfinch

The bullfinch is a bird known for its beautiful singing voice and distinctive chunky head. It lives across the UK and Europe and has an "amber" conservation status, as the species is gradually recovering from a population decline in the late 20th century.

The bullfinch belongs to the passerine family of birds, which are also known as perching birds, or songbirds, although the latter description is less accurate scientifically. It was identified as living across Europe as early as the 1560s.

Bullfinch bird

© nataba / Adobe Stock

How did the bullfinch get its name?

The origins of the name "bullfinch" have been a subject of debate among ornithologists for many years. Supposedly, it was so called as a result of the shape of its head and neck, as this gave it a front-heavy appearance, similar to a bull.

The British academic, William Burley Lockwood (a language specialist who studied the etymology of bird names) supported this explanation. He published a number of factual books, including The Oxford Dictionary of British Bird Names.

He said the bullfinch was named in the same way as the "bulldog" and "bullfrog", in recognition of its "front-heavy, literally bull-headed construction". He described the bird's "globular bill and neckless rotundity".

Author Francesca Greenoak, who published British Birds: Their Folklore, Names and Literature, in 1997, also backed the theory that the bullfinch's "large head and stocky form" was behind its name.

In some parts of the country, it also has other colloquial names. For example, it has been referred to as the "bud finch" or "bud picker" in Devon, as a result of its diet of fruit buds.

The bullfinch was first listed as a species by the Swedish zoologist Carl Linnaeus in the tenth edition of his book, Systema Naturae, in 1758. He was behind the practice of scientifically naming animals.

The species' Latin name is Pyrrhula Pyrrhula, which derives from the Greek word "purrhoulas". This literally translates as “worm eating bird”.

Is the bullfinch found in gardens?

The beautiful wild bird lives in a variety of habitats across the UK and northern Europe, with its population stretching all the way to Japan.

Commonly found in woodland areas, coniferous forests, agricultural farmland and parks, the species will live in orchards and in blackthorn and hawthorn hedging. It is quite reclusive and is seldom found in open areas, such as coastal environments.

For this reason, it isn't often found in gardens, although it will sometimes appear when looking for food. The British Trust for Ornithology's Birdwatch study reported that only 10% of householders had seen a bullfinch in their own garden.

In the wild, its diet consists mainly of seeds and plants. It enjoys eating buds and fruits from trees, especially fleshy fruits, such as raspberries and cherries. Bullfinch will also forage for worms and insects, mainly to feed their young.

If you wish to attract them into your garden, sunflower seeds and raisins placed on the bird table are the best options.

How will I spot a bullfinch?

The bullfinch is one of the larger finches in the family. It has a compact body and is around 6.4 inches long when mature. Both the male and female birds have a distinctive black face and head, a white rump, a grey back and black tail.

You can recognise the male bird by his bright, reddish-pink breast. The female's underbelly is a neutral, greyish-buff shade in comparison. Young birds of both sexes have a brown head and face, rather than black, before their adult colouring develops.

Bullfinches that originate in the UK are smaller than their Scandinavian counterparts. The birds living in the southern hemisphere are generally smaller than the northern varieties.

Best time of year to see a bullfinch?

Although the bullfinch is about all year round, it is often overlooked during the summer. The species is fairly unobtrusive and quiet, preferring to congregate in pairs or in small, loose flocks.

During the winter months, small flocks of bullfinch may appear together at feeding sites or travelling in small family groups. In summer, when food is more plentiful, they are less likely to be seen in gardens.

During the spring, the bullfinch is sometimes considered to be a pest, because it feeds on the buds of fruiting trees, thus damaging them.

It makes its nest from twigs, moss and lichens. Studies show bullfinches tend to mate for life. A bonded pair lay up to five eggs, on two or three occasions, during the breeding season, between April and August.

How rare is the bullfinch?

The British Trust for Ornithology's Beyond the Maps research programme suggests the bullfinch has lost much of its habitat to agricultural growth. Its "amber" status reflects the fact its population is 36% lower than it was in 1967.

Although it is starting to recover, the species still isn't safe. The main breeding gains have occurred in western Ireland, in some regions of Scotland and on the Inner Hebrides islands.

In years gone by, when the bullfinch population was more plentiful, it was kept as a pet. People loved its tuneful singing voice and in the 19th century, it could be found in a cage in the parlour, where it entertained guests.

People would even play the flute to encourage the bird to sing. Its birdsong was said to mimic a flute or whistle. In modern times, the practice of keeping the bullfinch as a pet has diminished for ethical reasons.

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