There can be few birds more readily, and dare I say deliberately, overlooked by birdwatchers than the chaffinch. I can’t help but think that if this remarkably colourful bird was a little less abundant we would value it more than we do but that is more of a reflection on us as a species than the confiding, colourful, charming chaffinch.
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We once held the chaffinch in a slightly higher regard, if for all the wrong reasons, valuing it as a songster which could be kept in cages for our pleasure in Victorian times. Despite this close association we have never really developed any significant folklore around the chaffinch but familiarity has led to a wide range of local names for it. Many of these names mimic its call, which compared to its song is much less exhilarating, and I might even say slightly irritating. ‘Chink Chink’ or ‘Pink Pink’ are two variations from around the country. ‘Pink’ is slightly misleading as this is also the colour of the male chaffinch’s breast but it is highly unlikely that colour had anything to do with this name.
Identifying male and female chaffinches
There aren’t many more colourful species in the UK. The male chaffinch, as well as having a rusty-pink breast, has a slate-blue head, copper brown back and wings which manage to combine back and white with a flash of creamy-yellow. His bright colours and loud song are designed to attract a female and establish his territory.
By comparison the female chaffinch is a little dull. Her buff, grey and brown plumage is only really brightened by the two white wing bars but this is understandable because one of her most important roles is to stay hidden while incubating eggs on the nest.
In April both male and female chaffinch gather materials for the nest which is usually built in a hedge or the fork of a tree. The female is responsible for building the nest and she does a remarkably neat job of weaving grass, moss and various other materials to make a cup which she decorates on the outside with lichen and cobwebs for camouflage. Finally she lines the nest with hair for comfort and warmth before laying four or five eggs, she then incubates the eggs for about two weeks.
Once the eggs hatch both male and female collect a range of live prey to feed to their youngsters. Although we think of chaffinches as seed-eating birds they prefer to feed insects to their young because they are higher in protein and more easily digested.
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All of the parent’s energy is committed to raising this one brood, unlike many other small birds the chaffinch will not have a second brood. This low productivity is compensated for by the slightly higher longevity of chaffinches compared with many other passerines. The average life expectancy for a chaffinch is about three years compared to a robin, say, which is only just over one year and the blue tit which is about one and a half years (these figures seem lower than we might expect because a large proportion of birds die before their first winter).
Once they fledge the nest young chaffinches look like their mother, but even more drab! Gradually over the course of the late summer they moult into adult plumage.
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By the time we get to autumn the British population of chaffinches is given a huge boost by birds migrating here from Northern and Eastern Europe, particularly in cold weather. Flocks of birds occur in woodlands and they regularly visit gardens to take advantage of bird feeders.
It isn’t uncommon to see large flocks of single-sex chaffinches. Male chaffinches are more sedentary than females so many male chaffinches don’t make the migration from Scandinavia to Britain in the winter leading to a larger number of males in Scandinavia and a larger number of females in Britain at that time of year.
The preponderance of male chaffinches in Scandinavia during the winter was first observed by the Swedish taxonomist Linnaeus who was responsible for classifying and naming species with the now familiar binomial nomenclature. His choice for the humble chaffinch was Fringilla coelebs, literally the bachelor finch. The chaffinch’s common name is thought to have come from its habit of feeding amongst the chaff of seeds spilt around our farms.