Nature Diary: College Reservoir, 5th April


Bullfinch male. Photo by Ben Porter – visit his website here.

The April shift is well under way, and what begun as a gentle segueing of the season in from the winter – the first snowdrop, the first trill of a chiffchaff – has now descended into a full blown rush to get the important business of the propagation of genes underway.

The normally skulking, introverted wren is now singing as loud as he can from exposed perches, zipping from each one in a chocolate flash. In defence of his nesting territory, he zips out a high-pitch rant with his stumpy wings flapping vehemently by his side, like a tiny man trying to egg on someone clearly too big for him. A pair of long-tailed tits preen lichen-encrusted branches for nesting material with the air of browsing weekend shoppers, daintily selecting suitable clumps of green fluff while twittering away to each other contentedly.

The blackthorn blossom is in riot. Branches that appeared foreboding all winter, seen only by dagger-like thorns and worn bark, have now, like Tom Waits transforming into Marilyn Monroe, exploded into a glorious white bouquet.

And with it come the bullfinches – two pairs to be exact. Both stand out even without the ivory-white backdrop. They are one of those birds who look permenantly air-dried, feathers with a painted-on hue that would never conceive of ever being covered in a speck of dirt. Beaneath the black cap which covers the head like a tiny hood is a blunt, chunky bill that would, like their thuggish namesakes, look quite at home with a ring through it.

The birds themselves behave anything but bullish however. Even though the males are far more exuberant thanks to their most stunning feature, a breast the exact same colour as a smoked salmon fillet, they devoutly follow their duller-shaded mates with a sensitivity normally reserved for 19th century romantics, and communicate in sleepy, high-pitched ‘few-fews’ that sound too delicate for such a stocky songbird.

Mate courting is going to have to wait however when there’s so much blossom to consume, and they’re gorging themselves so enthusiastically that little white beards of the stuff are appearing on their bills as they go, gobbling it down as if they had only been given a ten-minute lunch break. This voracious appetite actually earned them an unsavoury reputation with rural folk in times gone by, and it may surprise some to learn just how much of a hard time these birds were given.

In one of the earliest acts of legislative wildlife control, Elizabeth I decreed in her 1566 ‘Acte for the Preservation of Grayne’ that ‘everie Bulfynche and other byrde that devoureth the blowth of the fruit’ be firmly exterminated by whatever means possible, as many poverty-stricken smallholders would’ve been managing orchards on a delicate line at this time. A peak in orchard numbers occurred from the latter half of the 17th century, and with it a peak in bullfinch killing. Often they were caught by liming their regular perches, and the birds remained on general licences right up until 1998 while all other songbirds gained full protection much earlier.

As a lover of really big and messy hedgerows and woodland edges, bullfinches are nowhere near as common as they once were due to the familiar story of agricultural intensification. But I do wonder if the continual effects of deliberate killing over the centuries had an effect – I wouldn’t be surprised. Whatever the case, any sighting is treasured of this bird that almost looks too dazzling for its landscape.

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