I would say that the Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs is arguably as recognisable to many non-birders as the humble sparrow. Some of the general public may not know this engaging finch by name but perhaps would at least recognise it especially when they notice them cockily begging for scraps around picnic tables.

Chaffinches are widespread throughout Europe and the males are indeed gorgeous looking things. Over the ages the species has transitioned from being a woodland denizen to a townie, so long as there is good tree cover. Their song is one of the more familiar sounds in the woodlands and large gardens of Britain and Europe. In some countries Chaffinches are also associated with rain as the birds seemingly sang precipitating rainfall. Indeed these birds have long been celebrated throughout history. In Britain, the Victorians used to use the phrase ‘gay as a Chaffinch’ to describe a well dressed or vivacious person. On a more disappointed note, they were also a favourite with the bird catchers of the day. Trapping would even occur in the London parks. Such was their popularity as songsters that singing matches were organised between birds in taverns in the East End of London. The birds were sometimes blinded with a hot needle in the dumb belief that it would make them sing better. Sadly, the Chaffinch is still a popular cagebird in some European countries. For instance, in Belgium birds are pitted against each other in competitions to see which bird called the most.

Have ever wondered why the Chaffinch and its close relative the Brambling are always listed first in the pages featuring finches in our field guides? It turns out that both species along with the Blue Chaffinch and the newly split species that I will mention a little later, all belong to the genus Fringilla. It is a small family of eight species found only in the Old World, although the Brambling, the only true migrant in the family, is a near annual stray to North America much to the delight of the twitchers there. However, although outwardly looking like a regular finch, the chaffinch clan actually differ from all other finches in their nesting behaviour and their lack of a crop. Fringilline finches also feed their young almost exclusively on invertebrates whereas the other finches, cardueline, raise their young on regurgitated seeds.

Chaffinches were unfortunately introduced to several of Britain’s overseas territories during the second half of the 19th century. Since 1900, their populations are now rife on both the main islands in New Zealand whilst there are still remnant breeding colonies existing on the outskirts of Cape town, South Africa. Chaffinches are naturally found throughout Europe into Siberia and there are a number of subspecies, each with the males having subtly different plumage tones. Their songs are also subject to dialects across their vast range too. Some of the races are so distinct that they have recently been elevated to full species status. Thus, the other day I had a celebratory moment when I added three new species of Chaffinch to my life list. They included the bluer-headed African Chaffinch found in north Africa. I saw these birds in 2016 during a visit to Morocco when there were still deemed as a subspecies of the regular Chaffinch. Interestingly, when this taxa was first described in 1841, by ornithologist Charles Lucien Jules Lauren Bonaparte – the nephew of none other than Napoleon Bonaparte himself – he thought that he had found a distinct new species. It was latter subsumed into the Common Chaffinch clan until 1979 when studies started that eventually led to the species given its rightful independent place in the avian list in 2023. Those studies also resulted in the splitting of the other two chaffinches now on my list, Azores and Canary Islands Chaffinches, along with the two not yet on my list, Gran Canaria Blue and Madeira Chaffinches.

The Chaffinch is one of Europe’s most common birds, yet in Britain alongside the Greenfinch they have suffered a catastrophic decline. According to my friends at the British Trust for Ornithology, after seeing steady increase in population between 1970 through to 2010 they then suffered a sharp decline in numbers. This drop was brought on by Trichomonosis. It is a terrible disease that causes severe damage to the tissues of the mouth, throat, crop and esophagus. Afflicted birds may drool saliva, involuntarily regurgitate food, have difficulty swallowing and demonstrate laboured breathing. Unfortunately, this is a disease that is spread by birds visiting feeding stations. To avoid the incidence of your garden birds getting affected clean your bird feeders and baths regularly – at least once fortnightly. Make sure that the feeders are rinsed well and dried before re-use and try to obtain feeders that prevent the seed from getting wet. Finally, if possible, try to periodically move your feeding station to help prevent a build-up of disease harbouring guano.

Treasure your Chaffinches!

Learn more about the David Lindo’s work by visiting theurbanbirderworld.com or via his Instagram @theurbanbirder

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