The male bullfinch is unmistakable with its bright rosy-red breast and cheeks, distinctive black cap, white rump and striking white wing bars in flight. Although the female has the same distinctive black head and rump, the under parts are a grey buff colour, much less flamboyant than the male.
They are secretive and quiet, spending much of their time among the branches of trees and in dense undergrowth. They tend to be found in pairs or family groups, except in spring when they gather in flocks of up to 50 or more. During the winter months our resident bullfinch is joined by the ‘Northern bullfinch’ from Scandinavia, these migrant birds are slightly bigger, bolder, and have a more intense pink breast and very pale underparts.
Their diet consists of insects, berries, and seeds such as dock, and bramble, they are also very partial to a wide variety of buds.
During spring, when seeds and berries are scarce, bullfinches have a voracious appetite for the buds on trees, especially those of fruit trees, which can cause severe damage to fruit crops. In the past this resulted in bullfinches being trapped. But with numbers declining in recent years to the extent that this can now only be done with a licence.
For many years the bullfinch was on the RSPB red list due to the breeding population declining steeply between 1967 and 1977. This has been attributed mainly to the quantity and quality of woodland margins and hedgerows, agricultural intensification and increased grazing by deer. However decline eased during the mid 1980’s and their numbers have been improving on a continual basis since 2000, and have now been re-categorised to the amber list. However UK numbers are still 67% lower than 1967.
There is an estimated 220,000 breeding pairs in the British Isles and they can be found throughout the country although sparse in the far north and west of Scotland.