Bullfinch { Birds of Europe}

The male bullfinch

Originally appeared on Flickr
Originally appeared on Flickr | Source


Another in the series Birds of Europe. Here we review the lifestyle and breeding habits of the Bullfinch, along with some historical information on the bird from past ornithologists.

The Bullfinch belongs to the Passeriformes {perching birds} and the family Fringillidae, it is placed in the genus Pyrrhula. The genus name {and the specific name}, is thought to derive from the Greek Purrohulas, a worm eating bird mentioned by Aristotle , others say it derives from the Greek pyrr indicating fire and alluding to the males breast colour.

The Gaelic name for the bird is corcan coille, the Welsh Coch y Berllan and the Irish name is corcran coille.

In the UK the bird is now placed on the Amber list of conservation concern. The criteria for the addition to this list is that population/distribution numbers have declined by between 25-50% over the last forty years or so. The latest estimated population number was in the year 2000 when the figure was thought to be 158,000 territories in summer {source BTO}. In Europe it is not a species of conservation concern.

Bullfinch Pair

GFDL-CC-By-SA | Source

History of the Bullfinch

During the 1800's this species was one of the best known of our smaller birds. However, from its love of dense thickets and its elusive manner it was often regarded to be much rarer than it actually was. At that time it was to be found ,although sometimes locally, through all the wooded portions of Great Britain and Occasionally breeding in the Channel Islands. It was also found throughout Ireland.

Also at that time it was thought to occur throughout North Europe and Asia, not extending much beyond the Arctic Circle. In south Europe, Turkestan and south Siberia it was principally known as a winter visitor, occasionally straying as far south as Algeria and Asia minor. A few were known to remain and breed in the mountains of north Portugal and Spain, north Italy, the Carpathians and the Caucasus. Throughout this extensive range it was thought that the birds varied slightly in colour and were considered to be sub-species.

Description of the Bullfinch

The male bird has bright pink cheeks and underparts, black chin,crown, nape , wings and tail. they have a white rump, conspicuous in flight, white under tail coverts and wing bar. the mantle is grey. The females are of a same plumage but they and the juveniles are much duller. The tail is cleft {slightly forked}, the bill is of a black colour and very stout, the legs are brown.

They are 16cm {just over six inches} long with a wing-span of 26cm {ten and a quarter inches} and both male and female weigh 21-grams. In relation to their body size the wings are medium length as is the tail. The neck is short and thick { bull-like, hence the common name} the bill medium to short, legs short.

The flight of this finch in common with most others is undulating {bounding}, it hops when on the ground. In the field it is recognized from other birds by being the only small bird{in the UK} with both a black cap and red or pink underparts. And apart from the winter visiting Brambling, it is the only small woodland bird with a white rump, conspicuous when flying away.

History of British Birds Rev.Morris {      }
History of British Birds Rev.Morris { }

History as a cage bird

From the richness of the colour displayed throughout its plumage the bird was, in times gone by, highly prized as a cage bird. The low piping notes of the Bullfinch,Pyrrhula pyrrhula {formerly Pyrrhula vulgairs}, which are familiar in woodlands, especially during the course of April and May, are not very melodious, nor can they be heard from any great distance. However, this did not detract from them being much sought after.

There is on record, a Bulfinch being trained to whistle to the tune of a German flute. It was said that some Bullfinches were trained to sing in three different airs, never at all mingling with each other. However, it was also stated that much skill and patience was needed to achieve this aim. Obviously a bird, alledgedly so accomplished was very expensive and during the 1800's as much as four or five pounds was sometimes given for a well trained bullfinch.

Records convey to us that at Hesse and Fulda, little schools were formed for the purpose of teaching the birds and those supplied Germany, Holland and England with these musicians. Dr. Stanley stated that -" No school can be more diligently attended by its master and no scholars more effectually trained to their calling, than a seminary of Bullfinches.

It seems that as a general rule they were formed into classes of about six birds each, and kept in a dark room, when food and music were administered at the same time, so that when the meal was ended, the birds were naturally inclined to copy the sounds they had heard and were so familiar to them. As soon as they began to imitate a few notes, the light was admitted to the room, which still further lifted their spirits and inclined them to sing with more vigour.

Buffon, states that tame Bullfinches which have escaped from the aviary, and lived for a year at liberty in the woods, have been known to return to the mistress who had petted them and never again to leave her, while others who have been forced to leave their master, have pined and died of grief.

Bullfinch and the Grower

The Bullfinch seeks the refuge and seclusion of woods and dense shrubberies during the summer months. In autumn and winter they may stray a little further and at this time may be encountered in fields and gardens, in small plantations, where the undergrowth is dense, in matted hedgerows where tall herbaceous plants straggle through and over white thorn and hazel bushes.

In winter especially just before spring, the Bullfinch may be seen in large gardens and orchard. It rarely visits the wilder parts of the countryside and where there are no trees there will be no Bullfinches.

The Bullfinch is no favourite of the gardener or grower, for it id capable of destroying many early buds of fruit trees, stripping the apples, pears,plums,gooseberries and cherries of the gardens and allotments. They will then return to their more familiar haunts and strip the blackthorn of their buds hence the sloe berries are greatly diminished in the autumn.

Its strong bill is capable of extracting the kernels from the cones of fir trees and those of the beech, it will also find and take the seeds of flax and nettles. In the winter months one of its favourite foods is the kernels found in the fruit capsules of the common ash tree, which are known collectively as 'ash keys'.

In winter and early spring it was regarded as being very destructive to fruit bearing trees and bushes such as those mentioned above.

A writer in the 'Magazine of Natural History 1800,s, wrote --" Witnessing, a few springs since,the havoc made by a number of bullfinches on two thriving young Codlin {apple} trees, that for several years had blossomed and borne profusely , and , had at the time every appearance of good health, my curiosity was awakened on this subject. Birds that were shot had their crops filled with blossom buds on which the birds had been feeding which did not seem to contain insects of any kind. Since that time the Codlin trees have never grown with so much vigour as they did previously, many of the branches being so entirely stripped of buds that they never recovered.

This spring trial was repeated, and when the trees were in a more advanced state, in fact, when the leaves had just started to expand , and the blossom buds made their appearance, a culprit Bullfinch was killed in the very act,an unswallowed morsel yet remaining in his bill, to bear testimony against him.

This was a single flower bud, with all the parts yet entire,the birds crop and gizzard were completely filled with future fruit with stamens attached to it, but stripped of the calyx and petals. Beneath the trees themselves, the ground was thickly strewed with the parts of the flowers rejected by these dissectors, which parts invariably consisted of the calyx and petals, yet remaining attached together.

It appears to me that the buds are destroyed for the sake of the interior parts of the fruit and flowers by these enemies of trees of the Prunus and Pyrus kinds, as Cowslips and Primroses are by other birds, for the purpose of devouring their minute and yet imperfect seeds"

A pair of Bullfinches have been known to strip a considerable sized plum tree of every bud in the course of two days. Bishop Mant wrote of this behaviour in poetic phrase--

" Deep in the thorns entangled maze,

Or where the fruit-trees' thickening sprays

Yield a secure and close retreat,

The dusky Bullfinch plans her seat

There, where you see the clustered boughs

Put forth, the opening bud, her spouce,

With mantle grey and jet-like heads, and flaming breast of crimson red,

Is perched with hard and hawk-like beak,

Intent the embryo seed to seek;

Nor ceases from his pleasing toil,

The orchard's budding hope to spoil

Unless with quick and timid glance

Of his dark eye your dread advance

He notice, and your search evade,

Hid in the thicket's pathless shade"

Familiar Wild Birds Swaysland  {1883}
Familiar Wild Birds Swaysland {1883}
Magpies and Jays are always on the look out for an easy meal. The nest of the Bullfinch is often rifled of its contents by these and other predators.
Magpies and Jays are always on the look out for an easy meal. The nest of the Bullfinch is often rifled of its contents by these and other predators.

Breeding,nest eggs and young

The breeding cycle of the Bullfinch commences around the beginning of April. The nest is a much looser structure than those of other finches. It is composed in the main of twigs and fine roots.It is normally situated in fairly thick cover such as tall hedges and plantations or in the thickest hedgerows along railway embankments, usually between six and sixteen feet above the ground. It is generally placed in a the fork often near the end of the branches in a densely foliaged tree or bush. The nest itself is open and cup-shaped.

The eggs which number four to five are pretty and easily recognizable, being of a distinct greenish blue, brighter than is the norm among UK finches, and marked with spots which may be deep purple and patches of dull lilac. Sometimes the markings run into streaks. The distribution of these markings over the shell vary quite considerably.

Bullfinches have many enemies, and, they normally wait until the trees are clothed in dense leaves before the nest is started. But sometimes this is to no avail. For instance if the birds have chosen a thick hedgerow , and then that hedgerow is clipped leaving the nest exposed, it will be forsaken. But man is not is only enemy, nor his worst, for Jays, weasels and stoats are forever on the look out for an easy meal.

Unfortunately for the Bullfinch and many other species of birds these marauders are often far more successful than would be imagined. A great many nests are rifled of their contents by these and others of their predatory ilk. However, after the first outburst of sorrow for their loss, the birds almost immediately commence their labours and the construction of another nest commences, and furnished with another set of eggs.

Any eggs that are successful are incubated for 14-16 days by the female, while the male pays her every attention. The young are born blind and helpless, and are fed from the crop of the parent birds. They soon grow and are ready to fledge in a further 15-17 days . As soon as this occurs the parent birds will begin another nest and start the process all over again.

At the time of fledging the plumage of the young birds is considerably different from that of the parent birds, the breast being yellowish brown and the black upon the head and the grey upon the back are greyish brown, until the first moult. The sexes of these fledgling birds can not be told until after the first moult, which will then reveal the red/pink feathers upon the breast of males.

Bullfinch eggs in Museum of Toulouse


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D.A.L. profile image

D.A.L. 3 years ago from Lancashire north west England Author


Hi Eddy, thank you so much for your kind comments and I appreciate the share, it means a lot to me . Best wishes to you.

Eiddwen profile image

Eiddwen 3 years ago from Wales

Thank you so much fro sharing this great read. We have a Bullfinch regularly visiting our Bird table. Voted up and shared onto A Brand New Dawn.


D.A.L. profile image

D.A.L. 3 years ago from Lancashire north west England Author


Hello Deb, there are many reasons for the birds decline. One of the main causes seems to be attributed to the loss of straggling hedgerows , we have lost 90% of our hedgerows in the last fifty years or so { many were grubbed out to make room for access for large farmland machinery such as the combine harvester.} which brings me on to the next cause Intensive farming. There are also those that believe there has been an increase of predation due to sparrowhawks which have increased their numbers greatly through wildlife protection laws.

Thank you for your visit as always it is appreciated. Best wishes to you.

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

I had heard that bullfinches could strip a tree of its buds in no time. Would you consider that to be a result of its current loss? I suspect that clear cutting for homes/businesses would be another problem in their thriving.

D.A.L. profile image

D.A.L. 3 years ago from Lancashire north west England Author


Hello Devika, wow, I can not ask for any more from anyone you words are greatly appreciated and mean so much. Best wishes to you.


Hello, I am glad that you like these hubs and the plates and images are worth sharing. Best wishes to you.


Hello, thank you too for your kind comments. In days gone by many things were done to animals that would not be allowed today in a civilized country, and birds were often caged and trained to sing by all manner of means. Much of our knowledge about birds today came from our forefathers who shot them just to study their anatomy and the food they contained in their stomachs. In your country that great naturalist Audubon who wrote the ' Birds of America' loved birds but shot them just to study. Best wishes to you and thank you for the vote up ect, it is much appreciated.

tillsontitan profile image

tillsontitan 3 years ago from New York

I love your hubs on birds. You certainly stack them with information and you find the most beautiful pictures to accent your hubs. I had no idea the bullfinches were kept in cages! Another great hub.

Voted up, useful, awesome, and interesting.

thumbi7 profile image

thumbi7 3 years ago from India

I like your hubs on birds. I like simply looking at these photographs

It is very relaxing

Thanks for sharing

DDE profile image

DDE 3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

Bullfinch { Birds of Europe} these birds have such short beak sand look so cute!

A beautifully presented hub hub on this topic, you always share such interesting and informative hubs.Voted up, useful, interesting and awesome. Facebook LIKED and shared, Tweeted and Pinned.

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