Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula)

GenusPyrrhula (1)
SizeLength: 15 cm (2)

The bullfinch is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1). Listed on the Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern (3), the Birds Directive (4) and Appendix III of the Bern Convention (1). Protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) in the UK (4).

The stocky bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula) has a stubby bill (2), a black face and cap, a white bar on the black wings, and a white rump (3). Males have blue-grey upperparts and bright red underparts whilst females are duller with pinkish-brown underparts (2). Bullfinch juveniles are similar in appearance to females but do not acquire the black cap until after their first moult. The flight is undulating and the calls include a subdued piping warble (2).

The bullfinch is distributed throughout Britain, but is scarce in the extreme north and west. It is found throughout central and northern Europe from the Atlantic coast of Western Europe and Morocco to the Pacific coasts of Russia and Japan. In the south of Europe it tends to be a winter visitor (2).

Found in plantations, woodland, gardens (2) and farmland where the bullfinch is associated with scrub and untrimmed hedgerows (3).

Bullfinches have a broad diet, consisting mainly of the seeds and berries of a variety of plants. When these are scarce during the spring they turn to the buds of fruit trees. When bullfinches occurred in higher numbers they were considered to be pests of orchards.

Nests are built in dense hedges and woods between four and seven feet from the ground. Fine twigs, moss and lichens are used to construct the main body of the nest and a lining of fine roots is added. In May four to five pale blue spotted eggs are laid, the female incubates the eggs for 12 to 14 days after which both parents feed the chicks. A further 12 to 16 days later the chicks fledge. A second brood is then usually produced (3).

Between 1968 and 1991 there was a massive 75 percent decline in bullfinch numbers on farmland and a 47% decline in woodland in the same period (4). The precise causes of this decline are not yet known, but the following factors are thought to be involved. In the last 50 years there has been a general trend of removing trees and hedgerows in agricultural land, and of over-trimming the remaining hedges. This has removed nesting sites and food sources for the bullfinch. In common with most farmland birds, other changes in agricultural practices such as the loss of winter stubble fields and increased use of herbicides have impacted on the bullfinch. Furthermore, despite being protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981, it was legal to trap and kill bullfinches as pests until recently. After new licensing laws came into force in 1996, trapping is now only permitted under licence once serious damage has been proven and no other alternatives exist (4).

As the bullfinch was not recognised as a species of conservation concern until recently, very little conservation work has been focused on it. It may have benefited from general measures such as the creation and management of broadleaved woodland. Agri-environment schemes such as Countryside Stewardship encourage sympathetic hedgerow and field margin management that will help the bullfinch, as will the new Hedgerows Regulations. The bullfinch is a priority species under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan, the plan aims to halt the decline by 2003 and promote a recovery of numbers (4).

For more information on the bullfinch and other bird species:

Information authenticated by the RSPB:

  1. IUCN Red List (March, 2011)
  2. Peterson, R.T., Mountfort, G., Hollom. (1993) Collins Field Guide. Birds of Britain and Europe. Harper Collins, London.
  3. RSPB (November 2001)
  4. UK Biodiversity (November 2001)