Bullfinches are stunningly beautiful, one of our most striking and colourful birds but despite their wide distribution in Norfolk are not well-known. A close encounter with this bird can be memorable. I can still remember stumbling
downstairs into the kitchen one early morning some thirty years ago. I was greeted by the view of an astonishing colourful quartet in the garden. It was a party of four bullfinches, one male and three females, feeding on the seeds of shrivelled blackberries.
Once so common they were considered a pest species (due in part to their fondness for feeding on the emerging buds of cherries, pears, apples and the like in early spring) bullfinches are now rather less obvious, which is why my sighting was all the more prized. They are shy birds, generally preferring to feed quietly within a tree canopy or deep within stands of hawthorn or bramble. The sound of their subtle piping call can be the only clue that the birds are present.
The male bullfinch is one of our most colourful and handsome birds. He is a neat creature with a deep pink breast and cheeks, a jet black cap, blueish-grey back and a bright white rump and wingbar. The female is more muted in tone, with a dull pinkish-grey breast, although she is still very smart. An old Norfolk name is blood-ulf, the first part of that name no doubt in reference to the colouration of the male’s breast; the ‘ulf’ being of Scandinavian origin, a masculine term related to wolf.
Bullfinches need tracts of woodland or thick stands of cover, such as hedgerows, to survive. They are largely absent from intensively managed farmland or marsh. Our commons, most often, are very different in character from the intensively farmed countryside that so often surrounds them. They have often retained features, both natural and historical, that have been lost from the wider countryside and therefore offer the perfect mix of habitat and quietness.
There are more than 400 commons in Norfolk, ranging from tiny fragments to many hectares, such as NWT’s nature reserve at New Buckenham Common. This can be a great place to see bullfinches in the winter, encountered in small flocks quietly feeding on the seeds of birch, ash and bramble. You can also try Broadland nature reserves with damp woodlands, such as NWT Ranworth Broad
and NWT Upton Broad
. Walk quietly through the more wooded areas, listening out for their soft fluting calls and you may well be rewarded with the sight of these most striking of finches feeding unobtrusively amongst the tangle.
Our bullfinches are quite sedentary birds, seldom moving far from their natal patch and being faithful to a known food source. The birds are also faithful to one another, pairing for life. Nests of small twigs, lined with softer hair are built in hedgerows, patches of thick scrub or bramble.
I remember coming across these constructions, complete with four or five blue eggs spangled with dark purple spots and dashes, on a regular basis in my youth. One particular instance I was sitting quietly in a wood when a pair of bullfinches arrived to perch on a small tree a few yards away. Hop by hop they dropped lower until the female dived into a patch of bramble. The male bird waited until she was settled before flying off to feed alone: he had called her off the nest, accompanied her whilst she fed and escorted her back to the nest.
This year Norfolk Wildlife Trust is continuing its Wildlife In Common
project, exploring the historic and ecological importance of commons across Norfolk, and supporting local communities in celebrating them. It has been made possible by National Lottery players thanks to £58,800 from the Heritage Lottery Fund, with additional support of £7,750 from Essex & Suffolk Water Branch Out fund.
There are lots of ways to get involved, from volunteer wildlife surveys and practical tasks to sharing stories of your own memories of commons. We need local people to reconnect with their local common, help document the wildlife there, including bullfinches, and help us save this crucial habitat within the landscape.