Photograph of a goldfinch in a conifer

Birds: Finches

Roz Wade, Learning Officer at the Museum, writes:

Photograph of a greenfinch eating a seed
Greenfinch (c) Edwyn Anderton

We have some amazing finches from around the world in the Museum – including, of course, the famous Galapagos finches collected on the Voyage of the Beagle. But you don’t have to go far to see some treasure-like finches – there are some beauties that visit gardens in the UK. A highlight for me over the past few weeks has been seeing goldfinches visit our bird feeders with their red heads and streaks of gold on the wing, alongside the flashes of green of the greenfinches, and the rare visits from a bullfinch looking very exotic with its bright pink belly. So here are just some of the finches you might see in your garden:

Chaffinch, Fringilla coelebs

The chaffinch is one of the most common birds you will see in the UK. The males are easy to identify, with their slate blue head and pinky breast. The females are brown and not quite so obviously chaffinch. But look closely and you can see it has the same shape as the male, and there are clear white shoulder patches and white bars on the wings.

Chaffinches have a loud song, with a bit of a waterfall-like flourish at the end. I’ve heard quite often when walking through the woods behind our house.

Did you know? The scientific name coelebs means single or wanting a wife, and refers to the behaviour where males often over winter further north and females and juveniles further south. Living in Sweden, Linneaus, who named this species, saw how only the female birds migrated south in the winter.

There are some fascinating facts about chaffinches on the BTO website, and you can find out more about this bird and hear its snge on the RSPB website.

Photograph of chaffinch specimens from the Museum of Zoology
Male and female chaffinch specimens from the Museum of Zoology

Greenfinch, Chloris chloris

I was quite suprised by how large greenfinches were when I first saw them coming to our bird feeders – they looked a lot chunkier than the goldfinches that were nearby. I was also quite surprised at just how green the males looked – olive with striking yellow patches on their wings. The females are still green, but not quite so bright and without as much yellow in their plumage.

Our greenfinches seem to love the sunflower seeds. Take a look at the beak – it is quite deep and chunky, perfect for their wild diet of seeds.

Greenfinches used to be much more common in our gardens, but since 2005 have suffered a decline. A disease called trichomonosis has really affected their survival. This can be passed between birds at garden feeding stations, so it is really important that you clean your bird feeders regularly.

Find out more about greenfinches and listen to their song on the RSPB website and BTO website.

Photograph of a greenfinch specimen from the Museum of Zoology
Greenfinch specimen from the Museum of Zoology

Goldfinch, Carduelis carduelis

Watching the goldfinches in the garden has been a real treat this spring. Smaller and more delicate-looking than greenfinches, these birds are like little jewels in the garden with their bright red faces and brilliant yellow patches on the wings. Males and females of this species look pretty similar – both are colourful, unlike other species in this list. They have quite a fine beak compared to the other finches – perfect for picking smaller seeds from thistle heads and other plants. The goldfinches I’ve seen have enjoyed the smaller niger seed as well as the sunflower seeds in our bird feeders.

Where greenfinches have been suffering a decline recently, goldfinch populations have seen the reverse. The BTO Garden Birdwatch scheme has found a 70% increase in sightings over the past 20 years.

Did you know? The collective noun for a group of goldfinches is a charm.

Find out more about goldfinches and listen to their melodic, twittering song on the RSPB website, and get tips on attracting goldfinches to your garden with the BTO.

Goldfinch specimens from the Museum of Zoology

Bullfinch, Pyrrhula pyrrhula

Now for the finch that only rarely graces our garden with its presence – the bullfinch. They are quite shy, and tend to stay hidden in the foliage. With his rich pink breast against a grey back and stark black head, it is hard to miss this bird when it does come to visit out in the open. The female has a similar pattern of feathers, but with a greyish, buff-coloured chest instead of the bright pink of the male. The overall shape of this bird is quite round – it doesn’t narrow much at the neck, and the beak is short but very deep and robust. It is this plump, rounded, neck-less shape that gives this bird its name – described as bull-likeearance (not something immediately obvious to me).

Bullfinches have a bit of a taste for buds on fruit trees in the spring, but feeds on seeds and shoots the rest of the year, and sometimes insects in the summer months. Changes in farming practices, such as the removal of hedgerows, had a big impact on bullfinch numbers. The Wildlife Trusts and others have been working to promote more wildlife friendly practices and give advice on what you can do to support these birds.

Find out more about bullfinches on the RSPB website.

Photograph of a specimen of a bullfinch
Bullfinch specimen from the Museum of Zoology

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