Wednesday 3 August 2016

Attracting bullfinches to the garden

Po wants them to come to his bird feeder and Peter watches them return every year to eat his mourning widow seeds. (Geranium phaeum)

 Seeds are not yet ripe
Mourning widow geranium

It would seem from Po’s video (below) that they are happy to come for his sunflower hearts. At the time of writing we are hoping that they will return to Peter’s garden for him to get some pictures.
We wonder what is going on.
It's somewhat ethereal
I must warn you that this post written in anticipation ends with a damp squib

About bullfinches
A secretive bird, they are shy to come to the bird feeder. They have an omnivorous diet eating insects and plants. To some they are not wanted munching fruit tree buds and because of their partiality to devouring soft fleshy seed-rich raspberries. Their liking to blackberries is less of a problem in the countryside than it is in the garden. No doubt they spread bramble seed around.
If you are good at growing nettles, docks, ash, birch and honesty they might very well love your garden. No hope for me then except that I do have  - to Brenda’s derision - prolific Geranium phaeum at home and in my cemetery gardens a great deal of honesty.
I never see bullfinches, but then I am not good at looking!
They inhabit light woodland fringes. Much of Peter’s garden is wooded. This might be behind our story today about their liking for the seed on his Geranium phaeum. The small mystery is why bullfinches love his widow’s weeds and then when we ask all our birder friends no one else has noticed. Have Peter’s bullfinch learned about phaeum and passed the information on to their chicks? They return every year.
About Geranium phaeum

It is a beautiful geranium but perhaps best in a picture. Unless you look closely in the garden you miss the gorgeous small dark cranesbill flowers. An old slide in my cemetery lecture was metaphorically drooled over by audiences for thirty years! I mentioned recently that blogging concentrates the mind. In this case I now notice that it is gone from the cemetery but in my own garden it is taking over. Hence Brenda’s ire. It is ridiculously easy to propagate by division at almost any time of year. It will be returned to the cemetery in large quantities this Autumn and already several cut back clumps now nestle in Cathi’s garden.

Geranium phaeum
As a keen birder Cathi just has to have Geranium phaeum in her garden

Chopped back and planted last month they will flower profusely next year

Although the dusky cranesbill - also dubbed the black or mourning widow - often seeds itself around, some varieties are shy seeders which is no good for the bullfinches. It is a case of where natural species are better than hybrids. Or perhaps not if you just want the flowers or your local bullfinches do not know about the seeds.

These seeds are not quite ripe. Note how the bill splits along its length when it throws out its seed

In the past I have cut back my early Summer geraniums tight to the ground with my hedge clippers (I do not have a strimmer). They rejuvenate a tight mat of new leaves within a few days and remain as nice ground cover for the rest of the season. It is the recommended way. It is no wonder that if cut back they are not on bullfinch agenda.
Is it worth keeping the dead tops for an extra month just for the birds?

Cut back ten days earlier. Some varieties of Geranium phaeum have attractive leaf blotches - better than this one!
I am on a learning curve and am watching the dead heads on my geraniums. They look pretty scruffy. Not all the flowers have set seed and the pointed dispersal bills look very small. I read that the seeds mechanically disperse. At what stage do the bullfinches take them? What does the seed actually look like? Do birds like the seeds of other geranium varieties - some look plumper and more inviting?

Without any success I tried a bunch on Brenda’s bird feeder!

Thinking aloud - pondering about animals learning
Remember when milk bottles had silver tops and a lovely yellow cream line. Now that questions are being asked about homogenisation's effects on gut bacteria and cream is about to be reinstated as a healthy food perhaps they will return. Dream on.
Every tit in the land knew how to burst the tops open to get to the cream. First observed in 1921 after several decades it became almost universal bird practice to wait for the milkman.
I wonder if we started to use silver tops again how soon they would relearn?

Animals do learn and pass on information. I see on our bird feeder ever more varied contortions as birds twist and contort and pigeons stretch up from the wall to the seeds. Birds never designed to flutter and hover seem to get to the food.

My garden has no boundaries and at Seaton Ross I have always had rabbits. In fifteen years they had never discovered my astrantias. They have now! 
So much for my skills of identification! I just assumed that my astrantia’s lack of progress was persistent snail feeding in this very wet season. It has now dawned on me that my astrantia’s repeated decapitations with clean secateur sharp cuts is the wretched rabbits munching. They all seem to know.

Fairly moderate chomping

 Astrantia should look like this

After been cut to the ground several times, in desperation I lifted and potted the plants that had survived

I did not see these flowers this year

Peter’s bullfinches have learned about the dark lady and have passed it on to their children. Not many gardeners grow phaeum. Not all phaeum sets seed. Gardeners are too tidy and cut back prematurely. I fear that Peter’s secret will be confined to his garden.
So what should I put on my bird-feeder to bring in the bullfinches?
I actually tried a few bunches of phaeum heads on Brenda’s bird feeder. No joy there. Perhaps as Brenda is less assiduous in stocking it when there are so many seeds in the field few birds are coming?
I wonder how many gardener’s provide their own seed heads for their bird table rather than buying imported seed?

I have noticed over the years how birds in one garden strip seed and eat buds and leaves and not in another. They don’t seem to know and some gardener’s plants are left well alone. It might be that some varieties are less tasty, local bird populations may be low or more tasty temptation is available elsewhere?
For years birds left my beautiful red currants. It was about the time Brenda decided she would like to start using them in the kitchen when my birds started to strip them. Ah well we had the blackcurrants! Not this year, my beautiful ripe black fruit was gone overnight. Now the secret is out they are probably doomed. They have told Cathi’s birds and she has no blackcurrants either.
My pigeons have gradually learned that my brassicas are tasty all year round and not just as small plants in Spring. I now cover them with environmesh for the complete crop. I wonder how long before they learn to crawl under?

Po Simpson who has kindly provided me with the bullfinch pictures and videos has recently noticed that his goldfinches have a new way of eating the niger seed from his feeder. Instead of pecking a seed at a time they have learnt to initiate a more fulfilling flow! I wonder if he has made a video? He has made several videos of normal goldfinch feeding which at the present time can be viewed by pressing the u-tube link at the top.

Learnt on a steam train
Last week we ate dinner on the North Yorkshire Steam Railway with friends Mike and Isobel. They had noticed this year that the bullfinches in their garden had taken a liking to the persicaria in their herbaceous border and had provided them with much pleasure watching them eating the seed.

Polygonum persicaria is a very easy herbaceous perennial

The rabbits have not yet found these astrantias

About to pounce on Mike's  currant plants?

Mike as a keen fruit grower added a new dimension to the discussion when he lamented how bullfinches every year return to eat most of the buds on his red and blackcurrants. They come in mid Winter when the top is off his fruit cage because of the snow. I asked him as a botanist whether the tastes and flavour of the fruit may also be present in the buds. He thought so.

A big let down
If the bullfinches returned this year Peter was sleeping! His Geranium for some peculiar reason set very little seed. We do hope his bullfinches remember and come back next year

Po’s video’s

Bullfinch Take off

Bullfinch on feeder


  1. We grow geranium phaeum but have never seen any bullfinches interested in it. We do occasionally get a pair bullfinches on our bird tables and on the feeder that it's full of sunflower hearts.

    Birds do definitely learn new skills. They are also quite fickle I i'm planning a post about how fickle our blackbirds are.

    1. Now they are an intelligent bird. They will probably read your post!

  2. Sadly our female bullfinch is not the brightest button in the box. Her mate brings her to the feeder every year before they nest. He seems to be showing her where the ready supply of food is, but she can't work out how to get into the squirrel proof cage and has to ground feed underneath. He eats his fill and she gets crumbs. They do this for a couple of weeks, and then we see them individually. Once they successfully bred and brought junior along, but often we just see the pair again, so sadly they aren't very successful. I suspect the Great Spotted Woodpeckers may be to blame.
    If you learn the call you will hear them long before you see them. It's very easy to recognise

    1. Thanks for the link Sarah - I will study it. Nice and rather sad story.
      When you get an Einstein bullfinch please let us know

  3. Perhaps some mourning widows are shy to seed BECAUSE bullfinches have eaten all the seeds?! Could well be the case at Bolton Percy, which is fairly well wooded, and you've just not seen them at it. In fact, they may well have been 'at it' right under your nose Roger, and you'd not have seen them! :-)

    1. Quite possibly at Bolton Percy in the past. I am only there three hours a month these days - not much chance to spot any!
      At home Peter and I have been watching any seed develop - or not as in this case. There were a few of course to get my pictures of the splitting seed heads

  4. Hi Roger, although we seem to be short of finches this year we have had the pleasure of a breeding pair of bullfinches which appear on the feeders regularly possibly because there is a lot of cover. I grow Geranium phaeum but have to say I have never seen them on the plants but as they are not close to the house it is more than possible I have missed them.

    1. It looks like they have favourites in different gardens. Perhaps we should just go soft fruit - just for the birds!


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