The disappearing bullfinch


He’s a short, beefed-up robin, a ‘skinhead in a Hawaiian shirt’, and he has a voice ‘like a squeaky wheelbarrow’, says wildlife writer Jane Adams

With his bright pink chest, jet black head, grey back and stocky build, male bullfinches have the look of a skinhead dressed in a Hawaiian shirt.
But surprisingly – and I secretly believe each male has an invisibility cloak – they simply disappear into the muted greens of our summer countryside.
Admittedly, the Eurasian bullfinch is not a common bird, so is never easy to find. But with a resident population of over half a million, they are not rare either (yet).
They are found across the world, from the UK in the west, through northern and central Europe to Russia and Japan on the Pacific coast. They’re seen as a symbol of good luck by the Japanese.

In need of help
Back in the UK, it’s the bullfinches that could do with some luck. Their numbers have declined by more than 40 per cent since 1967 – and could drop even further if intensive farming techniques don’t change. They require thick, healthy native hedgerows and woodlands for nesting, along with a supply of seed and flower buds in spring to survive.
Bullfinches only visit ten per cent of gardens, but if you’re one of the lucky few, you can help their conservation by providing sunflower hearts, a particular year-round favourite food. If you’re simply trying to tempt them to your garden, make sure it has plenty of dense cover and native fruit trees.
In fact, if you do this, even without bullfinches other wildlife will benefit from the habitat you’ve created.

How to see them in the wild? First, listen out for their call. Often described as mournful in bird books, it sounds more like a wheelbarrow with an intermittent squeak to me.
Then look for a stocky bird, about the size of a beefed-up robin but with shorter legs.
As a bonus, bullfinches mate for life and they do everything together, so if you see one, look out for its mate (you never know, if one is lucky, maybe seeing two is doubly so!).

Bullfinch facts

  • Female bullfinches are like males but have a muted beige pink, rather than a bright chest. Fledglings are like the females but without the black head.
  • Both males and females show a tell-tale white rump in flight.
  • Finches are seed eaters, but will also eat flower buds in spring and will feed insects to their young.
  • On average, they live for two to three years but the oldest recorded ringed bullfinch was nine years, two months, nine days (set in 1975).
  • They lay four to five eggs, and can have one or two broods (occasionally three) a year, between late April and mid-July.
  • On 7th January, in Japan, the ceremony of “Uso-Kae” sees people exchange small wooden bullfinches as a way of exchanging their past lies for future good luck. ‘Uso’ means both bullfinch and a lie in Japanese.
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  1. I just so happened to see 3 bullfinch in my garden 3 days ago. I am an amateur birdwatcher and I have only seen bullfinch very rarely in the country, and never in my garden. I live in the village of Springholm, near Castle Douglas, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland. Regards, Gordon Geddes

  2. We’ve been very fortunate this winter with three pairs of Bullfinch feeding on sunflower hearts regularly. Normally we get an occasional male but this year they’ve been feeding several times daily.

  3. We feel very privileged, particularly having read this article. In recent weeks we’ve had at least one pair of bullfinches feeding on the new shoots on our plum tree in the front garden. We also have quite regularly both male and female bullfinches in our front and back garden. Beautiful birds 😍
    Karen, Fife Scotland

  4. Doing the bird watch the last weekend of January, then the week after just my luck saw both a male and female Bullfinch, at first I thought they were chaffinches, but looking closer then realised they were Bullfinches, absolutely beautiful birds was a privilege to see in my garden, hope it continues, happy bird watching friends, Gillian Westhoughton Bolton


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