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The hawfinch

David Chapman / 23 November 2017

Although the hawfinch is the largest finch in the UK it is surprisingly hard to spot due to its small population and secretive nature.

Hawfinch male, photographed by David Chapman

The hawfinch is Britain’s largest finch, a bit like a large, colourful chaffinch but with a disproportionately large bill. Despite its large size and colourful appearance it is also one of our most difficult birds to spot, partly due to its small population but mostly due to its secretive nature.

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Preferred habitat of the hawfinch

Hawfinches are true arboreal birds, they live their lives in mature woodland where they spend most of their time in the canopy out of sight of our casual glances. They build their saucer-shaped nest in the fork of a large tree, often amongst ivy, during April and raise two broods of young each year.

Diet and feeding habits of the hawfinch

Through spring and summer hawfinches feed on leaf buds and collect insects for their young but later in the summer they are known for their love of the kernels from cherry stones which they can crush in their huge and powerful beaks. The force they apply with their beaks is similar to that which we can generate with a pair of nutcrackers. In fact their scientific name Coccothraustes coccothraustes is derived from the Greek word ‘kokkos’ for kernel and ‘thrauo’ to break in pieces. The hawfinch has also been given many local names within the UK and these exclusively make reference to the bird’s huge beak and habit of feeding on large seeds for example ‘haw grosbeak’; ‘cherry finch’ and ‘berry breaker’.

Through late summer and into autumn hawfinches also enjoy the seeds of other trees including hornbeam, elm, ash keys and beech mast; hedgerow fruits are also eaten and these include hips, holly berries and, of course, haws from which the bird gets its English name. Hawfinches prefer to take seed directly from the branches of trees but as autumn progresses into winter and early spring they are forced to come to ground to find fallen seed.

Because they love seed and are prepared to come to ground level they can be attracted to garden bird tables where they will take sunflower seeds, but they remain very wary birds and at the slightest sign of danger will fly back into the treetops where they feel safe.

Population in the UK

It is thought that the breeding population of hawfinches in Britain is about 800 pairs but being secretive their population is difficult to estimate.

It is certain that their numbers have declined and are probably still declining so the hawfinch is red-listed. Their British breeding distribution is mostly restricted to England and Wales with just a few in south east Scotland.

The highest concentrations are found in areas with mature woodland such as The Forest of Dean and the New Forest. Other good areas include South Cumbria (Sizergh Castle, National Trust estate has proved very good in recent years), The Welsh Borders, The Home Counties and the south coast between Hampshire and Kent.

In autumn and winter their numbers are boosted by immigrants from Eastern and Northern Europe seeking our milder weather. At this time of year hawfinches can be seen anywhere in the UK and our total population might reach 15,000 (RSPB) with birds gathering in large communal roosts.

This is particularly noticeable in winters where we have a good crop of beech mast and it is very cold on the continent.

If you want to find hawfinches in your local area it is worth trying to learn how they call. They don’t have a distinctive song but do make an electric ‘zik’ sound which is often likened to the ‘tick’ call of a robin. There are a number of websites where you can hear this sound for yourself.

How to spot the hawfinch

Given a good view the hawfinch is easy to identify. It has a large beak, bull-neck and relatively short tail, all of which make it look a little top-heavy. Its plumage is colourful and attractive but surprisingly well camouflaged amongst the fallen leaves of trees in autumn. 

Males and females are similar but the male is always more colourful, his rusty brown plumage embellished with white, grey and black markings. In the wings both males and females have bluish-black feathers some of which have twisted, club-shaped ends giving them a delightfully ornate shape.

Their habit of eating cherry stones and the seeds of other fruits has brought them into conflict with humans in bygone years but the harm done by these enigmatic, shy, rare birds is minimal and anyone with hawfinches in their gardens will, I am sure, be delighted.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.