The traffic at my bird-table has been busy enough of late with no surprises to speak of. So far I have had no sightings of anything unusual, no nuthatches for instance although I know they are about and only rare visits from great spotted woodpeckers.
In recent years these colourful characters have been regular visitors but not so this winter. So I presume that with few really hard frosts to speak of to make access to the wee beasties upon which they by choice feed difficult, they must be finding enough natural food.
Thus the offerings I provide are being seized upon by the regular cast of feathered entertainers. There are the usual great tits, bluetits, a solitary coal tit, the inevitable and always argumentative house sparrows, red faced goldfinches, and a pair of collared doves, one of which now regularly manages to perch on one of the feeders in order to get at the sunflower hearts. There are also a couple of smartly speckled starlings which have mastered the art of clinging on to a fat holder in order to peck briskly away at the slab of fat despite being upside down!
A solitary greenfinch is a regular visitor. There used to be a plethora of them but they seem to have gone the way of so many farmland birds. However, if greenfinch numbers have plummeted, the one finch that appears to be comfortably holding its own is the chaffinch, for the ground below the bird-table is usually seething with them. They join the cheeky sparrows and the unobtrusive dunnocks below the bird-table, mopping up the scraps that descend from above from the more adventurous birds that clamber onto the feeders. The unassuming dunnocks are always typically at pains to avoid the melee on the ground, content to just quietly peck away at the scraps on the periphery.
I would guess that of all the birds that are regular visitors to bird-tables up and down the country – it is estimated that around 65 per cent of all British households actively feed birds in their gardens – the chaffinch is universally the most common. The word I used last week to describe mallards, ubiquitous, may perhaps equally be applied to chaffinches. So why are they so successful when so many other farmland birds are in decline?
In fact, chaffinches are perhaps rather more catholic when it comes to diet, compared at least to other finches and buntings, for whilst most finches are extremely dependent upon seeds as their main source of food, chaffinches have a much wider range that includes a surprising degree of insect life. In spring and summer especially, chaffinches feed extensively upon insect life and most particularly, they rely upon insects during the breeding season to a much greater degree than other finch-like birds.
Furthermore, longer wings and a longer tail, compared to other finch-like birds, enhance the flying ability of chaffinches to such an extent that they are even quite adept at catching insects in mid-air. In other words, they are that bit more athletic and versatile. It is not by accident that there is also a plethora of blackbirds currently apparent, another testament to the virtues of a more varied, omnivorous diet. Clearly, the chaffinch shares with the blackbird the benefits from such dietary versatility. These have become survivors whereas perhaps others have become over reliant on dwindling food resources.
One crocus-billed cock blackbird regularly takes up station among the teeming chaffinches, sparrows and dunnocks beneath my bird-table, snaffling as many of the scraps that descend as possible. He reminds me of Gulliver among swarms of Lilliputians! There is also plenty of blackbird activity on my lawn as witness the amount of worm hunting being conducted. They are testament to the ability of blackbirds to switch effortlessly between meat and veg!
Chaffinches also seem to adopt different tactics compared to other finches. Because they are more reliant upon insects than other finches and buntings, their summer territories are much more clearly defined. This is simply because their more omnivorous feeding requirements means that large territories are unnecessary so are generally smaller than those needed by other finches. Relying more heavily on seed, most finches and buntings generally nest in what may be described as loose colonies simply because they must feed over a wider area. Therefore, they need to be more tolerant of one another and in a sense must share resources.
This tighter territorial integrity of the chaffinch is also reflected in the more positive nature of the chaffinch song. That song, when finally it rings out, is one of the most familiar in both town and country. It may not be one of the first we hear, for the likes of great tits especially are among the earliest of songsters. However, chaffinches are often to be heard quite early partially because with competition for good nesting sites likely to be very keen, they need to be thinking of claiming good potential locations as soon as possible each spring.
Indeed, that competitive edge is further demonstrated by the fact that when winter descends, and chaffinches surrender their individuality and come together in flocks, they mostly do so on a single-sex basis. Furthermore, the birds you are currently feeding in your garden are unlikely to be the birds you will hear when singing in earnest begins in the spring. Chaffinches do migrate albeit usually only over short distances. Meanwhile, the hen chaffinches coming together in their spinster flocks are rather more relaxed, delaying their return to their native heaths in the spring because they are not driven by the need to establish territories.
The chaffinch is as unquestionably one of our commonest birds. And of course, the cock birds are extremely attractive with their prominent pink cheeks and breasts, grey merging with rich brown on their backs, wings flecked with attractive yellow bars and attractive slate grey caps reaching round their necks to the napes of their necks. Their songs are cheery in the extreme, initially faltering as if they are not absolutely sure what follows the first phase – a clearing of the throat perhaps - before that final assertive flourish. Surprisingly, that cheerful little ditty however does not come naturally to maturing cock chaffinches for it is not a built-in part of their genetic make-up.
In other words, young chaffinches have to listen to the voices of other chaffinches and learn to copy them in order to become fully throated songsters. And the fact that they have to learn to sing means that up and down the country there are many variations on a theme with different dialects emerging wherever you go - subtle variations on the same theme - just as is the case with human vocalisation. There are therefore fascinating variations, which reflect the dialects that persist in different places, rather like our ‘fit like’ in Aberdeenshire or ‘ee bah gum’ in Northern England!
Chaffinches survive because, like blackbirds, they are able to exist on whatever foods are available. They congregate around bird-tables in the winter in order to maximise food choice and they have also very successfully adapted their lifestyles in order to carve out a good living from the human environment. They are extremely colourful additions to our gardens and when they start to sing as spring advances, they bring that extra element of pleasure with their cheery little ditties.