Which British bird was killed and imprisoned in cages due to its habit of attacking the blossom of commercial fruit trees?
There was a small mixed orchard of apple and pear trees a few yards away from my farm during the 1950s and close to a farm laborer’s cottage that stood derelict. The occupier had not been seen since World War 11. When I wandered down to the orchard during the March to May period, I would almost certainly spot several bullfinches voraciously attacking the fruit buds on both types of tree. It was a fairly common bird. Reports at the time were that bullfinch numbers had risen during the early part of the 20th century and I was confident that I would likely see 5 to 10 of these birds during any of my bird watching excursions. I had to look closely because they were fairly shy.
The bullfinch is a striking bird, with a compact body, about 6 inches (15 cm) in length, and the male has a distinctive black cap, rose-red underparts and a white rump. The female is more pinkish gray. They were common and widely distributed back then, and reports were that their numbers had continuously increased since the start of the 20th century. Bullfinches generally remain in the same area throughout their lives, although some move short distances during harsh winter conditions. There is nothing more delightful to see than watching a red-breasted bullfinch pecking away in the snow. In winter, they are joined by the slightly larger bullfinches from northern Europe who move south in search of food.
Bullfinches have experienced a checkered career. Long time ago, their appearance and melodic song caused them to be caught and caged, and some of their owners would teach them to imitate a bird flute. Legislation ending the sale of wild birds stopped this practice in the UK.. However, the birds’ custom of eating flower buds from fruit trees got them into trouble during the 1950s to early 1970s. They were considered a pest by commercial fruit growers and a license could be obtained to cull their numbers. Annually, any thousands were legally trapped and killed during this period, although there was no serious impact on their overall number. From 1977 to 1982 the population declined because of changes in farming practices but has since stabilized to about 200,000 pairs, a 35 percent decline over the mid-1970s. It is a species of bird where the female is the dominant partner, especially during the mating season, and the bird increasingly has found the courage to visit bird feeders. It on the British amber list of threatened bird species.
Moving to California in 1979, I lost contact with the bullfinch. They are not present in North America, except for the occasional vagrant that may either be an escaped cage bird or blown from Europe by strong winds or storms. The nearest good-looking equivalent I can think of is the northern cardinal but it is a species not present in California. When the COVID-19 pandemic is over, I hope to reunite with the unmistakable bullfinch during my visits to see my English families.