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Country diary: Bulky bullfinches are the sweetest of songsters | Jim Perrin
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Country diary: Bulky bullfinches are the sweetest of songsters | Jim Perrin

Bullfinches! Human-designated pariahs of the natural world! They’re currently nest-building in my hedge. Why anyone should wish harm on these lovely creatures is beyond comprehension. Their presence has visionary intensity. The brightness, particularly of the male, is thrilling. He’s among the most beautiful of our garden birds, his brilliance flagged up by close attendance of his dowdier mate. His neckless rotundity is comic rather than elegant. By way of compensation, his fluting, disyllabic song has a subdued, sweet quality – not to mention unexpected, coming as it does from a creature with bulky weightlifter’s shoulders.

They’re endearingly tame birds. I sit out – rain and wind permitting – on my back porch and the male comes quizzically close, perching on a slender branch within a very few feet to chatter and peer. They’re startlingly good mimics. Thomas Hardy described Tess at work for Mrs d’Urberville, letting the bullfinches out of their cages and whistling to them. Tess assiduously taught them melodies, which these most adept of avian mimics soon learned and subjected to their own variations.

The male bullfinch is one of those birds that draws both eye and ear. Theirs is an unwonted reputation for destructive behaviour towards budding fruit trees. You can prune fruit trees hard without causing much harm. When I worked on an apple farm at the western end of the Malvern Hills 50 years ago, the old countrymen set a ladder against a haystack and we climbed up to eat our cheese sandwiches and drink our cider. The bullfinches were more interested in the scraps we threw to them than ripping off the buds.

My co-workers, all of them old Herefordshire countrymen, were dismissive of their reputation, and thought it unwarranted. Old Norbury, the boss, used to laugh at the notion of a penny bounty for each bird. “Leave them be,” he’d say, “you’ll make more money from filling those crates with apples than you will from slaughtering these little beauties. If you want to catch them, there’s cages in the back of the warehouse and you can sell them as songsters on Ledbury market.”

I never did. “A robin redbreast in a cage / Puts all of heaven in a rage,” as William Blake said. Let the bullfinches be free to prune as they will. The damage won’t be as bad as the mythopoeia suggests, and their presence is a grace.

Source: theguardian.com