Which British bird was killed and imprisoned in cages due to its habit of attacking the blossom of commercial fruit trees?
We are a small, colorful European bird and member of the finch family, known as the Eurasian bullfinch, about 15cm (six inches) in length, and weigh around one and a half ounces (35 grams). Our name reflects our bull-headed appearance. You will see us in British hedgerows, orchards and woodlands although we are shy when it comes to being around humans. About 400,000 of us breed in Britain and we are sedentary, rarely moving more than a mile or so from our breeding territory. We are joined by our Scandinavian friends during winter, who move here for the better weather.
You will discover that our domain of residence is restricted to the Old World (across Europe and Asia, and into Japan). In the New World, the species closest looking to the bullfinch are the tanagers, but we are not related. Worldwide there are an estimated 28 million of us
It’s the color of the bullfinch feathers that make us unmistakable. I have a flame-colored breast, my upper parts are grey, my head has a black cap and black face and my rump is white. The wing-coloring is black with a single white bar, and a dark tail. My partner is similar-looking except her underparts are greyish-buff and she is a little lighter in complexion. During flight, you may hear our soft piping call.
You are more likely to spot us during autumn and winter when we are out and about seeking seeds on plants such as nettles, bramble, pyracantha and honeysuckle. During spring we attack flower buds on fruit trees, such as pears, cherries, crab apples and plums, and use our short, stubby beak to nip off each bud and eat only the interior part, discarding the outer scales. By early summer our diet shifts to insects.
In olden days, many thousands of us were trapped and killed by humans in British orchards because we were considered an unwelcome pest. Also, we were imprisoned as cage birds during Victorian times, and in Germany, people even went so far as to imprison us and teach us to sing by playing a musical instrument in front of us.
Today, we are free and generally left alone, although our numbers have declined by about 50 percent since the 1970s, primarily as a result of loss of food supplies and elimination of nesting habitat caused by changes in farming practices. However, we are fighting to recover, despite being amber on the UK’s list of most endangered species. We usually raise two broods a year, each of 4 to 5 eggs, in nests a few feet off the ground, made of fine twigs, moss, lichen, and grasses. My bullfinch partner builds the nest, but we share incubation and both feed our young.
Come and see us but don’t confuse us with the more common and colorful chaffinch. It has a blue-grey head (not black) and a brown (not grey) back. Also, it’s not bulky like me.