Sandy's Garden .. The Chauvinist Chaffinch

It’s maybe four or five weeks since my eye was first caught by a speed-blurred flash of dull colours close to a large bay shrub outside one of our bedroom windows.

By Sandy Simpson
Monday, 6th July 2020, 9:37 am
Updated Monday, 6th July 2020, 9:38 am

And during several of these weeks I have seen this few-milliseconds-long apparition a number of times; indeed, I have caught a fleeting glimpse of this phantom sufficiently often to have come to the conclusion that it was a bird entering or exiting the dense foliage of the bush, doing its utmost to avoid its movement being detected.

So one sunny afternoon before the recent rains came … and while the temperature was still more Mediterranean than Maddistonian … I settled down in a comfortable chair on our patio where I had an excellent, if reasonably distant, view of the shrub, watching the scene intently in a bid to find out what was going on.

I hadn’t been keeping my vigil for long before a vividly-coloured male chaffinch landed on the telephone wire linking my home to a pole at the foot of the garden. It had an even-better view of the bush than I, poised as it was almost directly overhead: but its bright colours gave the lie to any thought that it might be the cause of my curiosity.

Falkirk Herald gardening guru Sandy Simpson

And suddenly, there was the dull-coloured blur! A small bird had arrived at high speed and disappeared into the shrub in a fraction of the time it takes to relate the incident. A few moments later the high-speed visitor exited the foliage in the blink of an eye; and the wire-balancing observer took wing and left the scene on an almost-identical flight-path seconds later.

I can only estimate that, perhaps ten minutes later, the scenario was re-enacted. The just-for-show male chaffinch touched down on the telephone wire with an assurance that any carrier-based Royal Navy pilot would have envied and surveyed the scene before --- flash! --- the second bird zipped into the cover of the leaves in a millisecond.

This time, however, I was expecting it and had a major clue about its identity; I was sure that it was a female chaffinch; and I now had clues about her activity in the bush for she was, presumably, engaged in nesting activities, perhaps building a nest or caring for eggs or even hatchlings. It would have been a simple matter for me to have pushed the branches of the shrub aside and rummaged through the foliage until I discovered her secret: but I anticipated that such activity might well frighten her away altogether; and I was never going to do that.

However, although I have since kept an eye and an ear open from a safe distance, I haven’t seen her or heard any sound of life in recent days; and I can but hope the supposed nest hasn’t been pillaged by predators.

These events aroused my curiosity about chaffinches; and I now know, by courtesy of Wikipedia, that the English name comes from the Old English ceaffinc, where ceaf is "chaff and finc “finch". Chaffinches were likely given this name because after farmers thresh their crops, these birds sometimes spend weeks picking through heaps of discarded chaff for grain.

The 16th century English naturalist William Turner offers two allegedly common names – ‘sheld-appel’ and ‘spink’ – neither of which are familiar to me; and I learn that they are monogamous and have the same mate for as long as they live, which is, typically, three years. Having attracted his partner by his song, the male leaves her to build the deeply-cupped nest on her own and is content to allow her to incubate her four or five eggs for about a fortnight.

The chicks are fed caterpillars … by mum … for their first week or so until they become fledglings and then fed, still on caterpillars, spiders and grubs and still mainly by mum, for the next couple of weeks.

Dad deigns to help with feeding for the three-or-so weeks after the nest has been deserted and the youngsters' diet is changing to seed. Yes, mum has to care for the weans mostly on her own while dad might as well be in the pub. Chauvinist little devil!