Photo: © Shutterstock.com/Ondrej Prosicky. Perfect partners: cock and hen bullfinches look superb together! Mark’s first experience of breeding them came about 30 years ago
For Mark Jones in his early days, the lovely bullfinch was a species to aspire to. Then, unexpectedly, he became the owner of a high-quality cock bird. So began his adventure with breeding the species – and many years later he’s still learning
THE bullfinch is probably second only to the goldfinch in popularity among our native seedeaters. Sadly, this is not evidenced by the numbers benched nowadays, but it was probably so, if my memory serves me well, when thinking of my childhood days and the major shows such as the Scottish National and National British Bird & Mule Club all-British show.
This bird is relatively simple to keep in terms of its needs, with a British finch mixture and fresh water. Today, we see seed mixtures that are species-specific and developed on the Continent. I would advocate the use of such a mixture specifically tailored for the bullfinch.
My first breeding of the bullfinch takes me back to the end of the 1980s when I left home for good and moved in with my then girlfriend, Tracy, and her mother. I quickly assembled a sizeable aviary in the back garden, which was split in two. My initial plan was to start off with something simple like a pair of lesser redpolls and greenfinches just to get into the hang of breeding. That plan was quickly abandoned due to the kindness of two friends from Eire. One, Johnny Doran, gave me a bullfinch cock of high quality. It tended to win its class when shown by him, and had good colour and feather quality.
So, the scene was set and one of the aviaries was occupied by a pair of bullfinches. For cover I used heather, which is good in terms of its density, thus giving the security that some hens require. However, some of the fine twigs sit in a way that can easily pass between the leg and ring with the potential for injury!
The pair received their water, changed every day, in a bath. I gave a British finch mix and switched to a soaked-seed mixture as winter was replaced by spring. As I recall, the seeds soaked were mainly sunflower, hemp, pine nuts and safflower. The pair also took eggfood with boiled egg.
There were quite a few cherry trees in my locality, so I’d prune the branches and present them for the buds they provided. The birds would consume the buds in rapid succession until no more remained. As the spring came, dandelion heads were gathered and given on a frequent basis, along with any other edible weeds that could be gathered.
I would observe the courtship display of the bullfinch on the ground. The cock bird, taking a few fine rootlets in his beak and with cap raised, did a little circular dance around the hen while uttering a few notes. I suspect that such observations, and others, are probably something that an ornithologist would never see?
A nest was constructed in the month of May with the use of natural materials. The hen required various materials to accomplish her task. Starting with fine branch material and roots, the material became finer from outside to inner. This finished with fine rootlets and wool fibres to give a soft bed for the eggs to sit in.
At the time I was working on days in the local factory and would walk up the road before work with scissors and carrier bag. I would collect greenfly that could be found on the nettle stems and under the leaves. Gripping the soft top of the nettle, I would then cut across the lower stem and place approximately three stems in the bag to be taken back to the aviary. The stems were placed on the aviary floor and the pair would soon drop down to pick off the greenfly.
With the process of laying having commenced I left well alone, which is something that I continue with today. My approach is that if the eggs are going to hatch, then they will do so. If not, then the hen will stop sitting when she is ready and start again. Actual incubation started after the third egg was laid and took approximately 13 days from incubation to hatching. While all did not hatch at exactly the same time, there was little difference between the first and the last, with no real disadvantage being found. It appeared that the cock took the main responsibility for feeding the chicks over the first few days, with the hen’s apparent contribution increasing as the chicks grew stronger.
The chicks grew rapidly and needed to be ringed at the age of about three days. At that time, the specified size was “C”, but even so the rate of growth was rapid, which I put down to the supply of greenfly. I believe that this is the best of rearing foods but, sadly, it is less common today. It is soft and full of protein, which is exactly what it appears that the parents are looking for in the first few days.
With the chicks successfully reared, they left the nest after approximately 14 days. The incubation period and time spent in the nest once hatched were broadly equivalent. Newly fledged chicks are not the best of flyers, so I lay a few branches on the ground to offer a little cover for roosting and warmth.
As the days went by, strength was gained and the ability to fly came with the chicks being able to roost in the highest of the cover. The parents continued to feed the chicks for another 10 days approximately, before the chicks started to become self-sufficient and feeding on what was provided to the parents.
I cannot recall how long it took for the chicks to commence the moult. Generally, I find that the earlier chicks take longer to begin it than those reared later in the year, which is likely to be due to the shortening days.
- Mark concludes his bullfinch story in the July 25 issue.
Mark Jones keeps, breeds and exhibits British hardbills. He is currently a member of the committee of the National British Bird & Mule Club.
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