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It’s Confirmed – Bullfinches Stick with the Same Mate for Years

Bird watchers have long believed that bullfinches mate with the same partner for several years, but this fact has never been confirmed – until now. Believing something to be true is one thing, proof is quite another but the issue has now been settled by Professor Emeritus Olav Hogstad at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU).

Observing Bullfinches

The professor has been observing the birds for twenty-four years in the Trøndelag region of Norway. In this area, bullfinches spend the winter together in small flocks of two to seven birds. It had been presumed that the groups featured pairs that remained together for several seasons. But the birds tend to move around a lot and so previous efforts at banding the birds and recording their behaviour had failed to confirm their mating habits.

Hogstad banded 165 bullfinches including 63 adults and 102 young birds over the years. He found numerous examples of pairs staying together for several seasons, confirming what bird lovers had always thought. He had the advantage of being out in the field a lot and usually at the same time every year for many years in succession. This approach has finally yielded the desired results.

Bullfinches in Decline

Bullfinches are often seen by casual observers in the winter months, especially at feeders, but can be shy and elusive in the breeding season and summer months. Ask yourself when you last saw a bullfinch in summer. Indeed, you may well ask yourself when you last saw a bullfinch at all. In the UK their numbers have declined by 36% since the 60s and the bullfinch is now listed as an 'amber' species of conservation concern by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO).

Brightly Coloured but Quiet

The males are brightly coloured and instantly recognisable but the birds have a soft and quiet song which only serves to enhance their elusiveness. The birds feed voraciously on the buds of various fruit trees in spring and so were once considered to be pests. Typically they are now seen in fewer than 10% of gardens in any given week and favour rural gardens which are connected to small areas of woodland.

Bonded pairs have a big advantage in the breeding season as they are able to begin mating earlier in the year and don’t have to waste time and energy searching for a new mate. When they have found the right partner, they stick with them.

Twenty-four Years to Prove What Was Already known!

Hogstad admits to feeling embarrassed about telling people that he has spent twenty-four years proving what bird watchers already knew! But he shouldn’t. Presumption is a dangerous thing and what seems obvious doesn’t always turn out to be true. Hogstad’s results have been published in The Royal Norwegian Society of Sciences and Letters (Det Kongelige Norske Videnskabers Selskabs Skrifter).

Have you seen bullfinches in your garden lately and have your feeders helped to attract bullfinches to your home in the winter months?


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