Ian’s Bird of the Week – Eurasian Bullfinch ~ by Ian Montgomery
Newsletter – 2/3/14
In response to last week’s photos of the Chestnut-breasted Mannikin, I received a photo of an American Evening Grosbeak – thank you Jeff – with a similar large pale finch bill. Typical Northern Hemisphere finches such as the Evening Grosbeak belong to the family Fringillidae while all the native Australian finches belong to the family Estrildidae, so I thought it might be of interest to say a little about finch taxonomy and change, as what we think of as typical finch seed-eating bills appear to have arisen independently in more than one instance.
So, this week’s bird is for a change a Fringillid finch, the Eurasian Bullfinch and a favourite of mine since I was a birding teenager in Ireland many years ago. the male is perhaps the most colourful of European song birds and it was always, and still is, a thrill for me to see one. They aren’t uncommon, but are secretive and usually occur in pairs rather than flocks so are easy to overlook unless you look out for their characteristic white rumps as they fly out of the thick foliage of hedges, probably their favourite habitat.
The bird in the first two photos is feeding on the flowers of the Blackthorn and both its English name and its scientific one Prunus spinosa reveal why it is a popular hedge shrub for stock, having been around a lot longer than barbed wire. It has other uses to including making Blackthorn walking sticks and clubs, such as Shillelaghs. It produces an attractive look fruit called sloes, which look a bit like black grapes but are very astringent.
Back to Bullfinches. The female, third photo, has a latte-coloured breast instead of a salmon pink one, but is just as elegant and was the partner of the male in the other two photos. The hedge in question is near my sister’s house in Co. Louth in an area (below) where there are still plenty of hedges and is good for other song birds like Yellowhammers and Winter Wrens.
Recent DNA work has shed some light on the inter-relationships between various families of song birds with thick seed-eating bills, the most familiar of which are the Fringillid finches, the Estrildid finches, the Eurasian Sparrows (Passeridae), the Buntings and North American Sparrows (Emberizidae). These were originally ascribed to the same superfamily Passeroidea by Sibley and Ahlquist (1990) and that grouping is still largely intact but includes other families that do not have thick bills, including the Sunbirds and Flowerpeckers such as the Mistletoebird (Nectariniidae), the Pipits and Eurasian Wagtails (Motacillidae) and the New World Wood Warblers (Parulidae).
It now seems that the Sunbirds and Flowerpeckers split off first, then the Estrildid Finches and Weavers (Ploceidae), then probably the Sparrows and finally the Wagtails and Pipits, the Fringillid Finches the Buntings and New World Sparrows and the New World Warblers. From this we can conclude that Estrildid and Fringillid Finches are not closely related and that a traditional morphological approach to classification would have failed to link the Wagtails and New World Warblers to the Fringillidae.
In case all this taxonomic detail leaves you cold, I’ve included links to the all the families mentioned on the Birdway website so can check out the photos instead. The sharp-eyed among you will notice that the BirdLife International sequence of families on the website is not quite the same as the order here. That’s because it predates the latest sequence which I’ve extracted from a 2012 paper on global bird diversity in Nature by Jetz et al. No doubt the grouping and order will change again in the future.
Ian Montgomery, Birdway Pty Ltd,
454 Forestry Road, Bluewater, Qld 4818
Tel 0411 602 737 firstname.lastname@example.org
Bird Photos http://www.birdway.com.au/
Recorder Society http://www.nqrs.org.au
And the master said to the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled. (Luke 14:23)
What a beautifully colored bird and, of course, Ian took great photos. Even Ian gets into the “taxonomic detail.” Those recent DNA work he mentioned is shaking up the birding community. These studies keeping bird guide book writers busy.
The Bullfinch is a bulky bull-headed bird. The upper parts are grey; the flight feathers and short thick bill are black; as are the cap and face in adults (they are greyish-brown in juveniles), and the white rump and wing bars are striking in flight. The adult male has red underparts, but females and young birds have grey-buff underparts. The song of this unobtrusive bird contains fluted whistles.
See Ian’s Bird of the Week and the various links in the article.