Linnet (Carduelis cannabina)

French: Martin triste
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderPasseriformes
FamilyFringillidae
GenusCarduelis (1)
SizeLength: 13.5 cm (2)

The linnet is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1). Listed on the Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern. Protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, Annex 1 of EC Birds Directive and Appendix II of the Bern Convention (3).

Slightly smaller than a sparrow, the linnet (Carduelis cannabina) is an attractive finch, which was highly sought after as a cage bird in the 19th century for its pleasant melodious song (4). Males have chestnut backs and grey heads and during the breeding season they develop a striking pinkish-crimson crown and breast. Males, females and juveniles have white edges to the wings and tail (2).

The linnet is common and widespread throughout the UK countryside, but there was a 56 percent reduction in numbers between 1968 and 1991 (3). The species is widespread and common throughout much of Europe. Most of the UK linnet population is resident (they stay in the UK all year round), but some migrate to Spain and western France for the winter, and breeding birds from northern Europe spend the winter in the UK with the resident birds (2).

The linnet is associated with lowland farmland and uses weedy fields, hedgerows, heathland, scrub and gorse thickets. It may also inhabit orchards, heathland, saltmarshes, gardens and parks (2).

Linnets tend to form groups of up to 20 individuals during the breeding season, which lasts from mid-April to the beginning of August. Nests are built in dense hedges, scrub or thorny trees. A typical clutch consists of four to six eggs and two to three broods can be produced in a season. The female incubates the eggs for 11 to 13 days, after which both parents provide food for the chicks.

Linnets are seed-eaters, feeding on over 46 types of seeds, a large proportion of which are from the cabbage family (2). The species gets its scientific and common names from its feeding habits; the generic name Carduelis derives from the Latin for thistle and 'linnet' derives from the Latin 'linum', which is flax, a seed plant that this bird once fed on (3).

Other farmland bird species that depend on the same diet have declined drastically at the same time as the linnet in both numbers and range. Linnets are more dependent on wildflower seeds than other seed-eaters during the breeding season, as chicks are fed exclusively on seeds rather than insects. The main cause of the linnet decline is thought to be changes in agricultural practices, including the use of herbicides and fertilisers, the reduction in farm diversity caused by intensification and farm specialisation, and the sowing of crops in the autumn rather than the spring, which results in the loss of winter stubbles, valuable sources of food for the linnet. In addition, suitable nesting habitat has been lost as a result of hedge, scrub and thicket removal, over-zealous hedge trimming and over-grazing. However, recent research suggests that linnets in some areas have begun feeding on the seeds of oilseed rape, which may help to stem the decline in future (2).

This species was not given a high conservation priority until recently, so there have been little conservation measures targeted at the linnet. However, it is likely to have benefited from conservation measures aimed at other species such as the protection and management of gorse thickets on heathland for the Dartford warbler Sylvia undata. Agri-environment schemes, such as the new Arable Stewardship Scheme, encourage agricultural techniques that benefit farmland wildlife by paying subsidies to farmers involved in the scheme. For example, the sowing of spring cereal crops and retention of winter stubbles will benefit the linnet. The linnet is a UK Biodiversity Action Plan priority species; the plan aims to halt the current trend of decline by 2003 and bring about a sustained recovery of the UK range to 1968-72 figures by 2008 (4).

For more information on the linnet and other bird species:

Information authenticated by the RSPB:
http://www.rspb.org.uk/

  1. IUCN Red List (March, 2011)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. RSPB (November 2001)
    http://www.rspb.org.uk
  3. Greenoak (1997) British birds, their folklore, names and literature. Christopher Helm Ltd, London.
  4. UK Biodiversity (November 2001)
    http://www.ukbap.org.uk/