The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Seasons: "Knowledge Never Learned of Schools"

Edited by Mary L. Armitt
Volume 12, 1901, pgs. 56-63

The Chaffinch--Fringilla Coelebs

Perhaps it seems superfluous to speak of a bird that so constantly speaks for itself. The Chaffinch's notes not only constantly ring out, loud and incessant, through one-fourth of the year, but its whole behaviour is obtrusive and assured: bold and confident in disposition, it is for ever putting itself forward. If we do but scent a rara avis, but one tantalizing and insufficient glimpse, or suspect a fresh arrival, and (eager of surety) wait and prowl about, then, without doubt, out from the ambush bounces a Chaffinch, saying, as loud as manner and a bold spink, spink, can say it, "Yes! you may look at me! 'Twas I all the time!" And look at him we do, with a disappointed disgust that presently changes to amazement at his impudent deceit, since a longer wait proves us not in fault, and the rara avis there all the while. In the arithmetical factors of bird-life, plus Chaffinch is an invariable sign.

This general air that the Chaffinch carries of "having someone on" appears even in his music, of which he often makes a kind of sport or game. I have hard him try to excite birds of other species to rivalry in song, and have known the delicate-voiced Willow-Warbler tempted to answer him, peal by peal. Fortunately (else in bird-music as an art would there be a sad decline) this challenge of strange and more melodious species is seldom necessary. For in even the smallest of rural domains there are sure to be two Chaffinches, and an equal-voiced neighbour serves his purpose better than a delicate-piping stranger. So the game of "Who can sing loudest, fastest, and oftenest?" begins in pleasant humour, while spouses sit on adjacent nests, and life is full of leisure for happy cocks. But games of this sort are not apt to remain pleasant for long. Faster as May days go by and more furious grows the contest, closer together come the irritated players, till, temper quite lost, they spring upon each other at last in fury, and fight out, by wing and beak--rising and falling in air as bout succeeds bout--the battle begun so amicably in song.

The breeding signal of song--if so it may be called--begins with the Chaffinch in February, though nesting does not actually take place till long after. It starts about the 9th or 10th of the month, sometimes a few days earlier, as a stutter of four or five syllables, and is added to gradually by practice till the perfect song of twelve to thirteen syllables (including a final flourish) is presently attained. By early June, when the song-season slackens, it has become so rapid and light as to be comparable, in Mr. Fowler's phrase, to the bowling of a cricket ball.

It is strange that the Chaffinch forgets his art every winter, and has to acquire it painfully every spring. Indeed, we may distinctly hear the song-gift failing him. In the hot weather of mid-June, when he is gabbling his syllables as fast as usual, some paralysis of memory or of throat overtakes him. At four syllables he breaks suddenly short, and though he pulls himself together, and goes through his strain perfectly next time, it is a sign of the end approaching. Very shortly after this, he is totally silent. I have noticed, too, that when glorious days in late August or September set birds a-singing, in a kind of short epilogue to the summer, and the Willow-Warbler tries a dainty phrase before he flies, the Chaffinch can but rarely manage more than a few syllables. His song-power, therefore, is almost entirely coincident with his mating, and the sharp call note, "Spink," which he shares with his mate, and which gives the species its local name, has to suffice him for the rest of the year; though there is another cry, used in flight, a low "Yut," which has a racial resemblance to the Bullfinch's "Oop," and the Brambling's wilder "Yak."

The pretty call of "Weet," which he uses for his mate alone, is first heard in mid-March. It is then that he seriously begins to court; and pleasant it is to see the pair hopping around in close company, and uttering that sweet and plaintive call-note, which is one of the special sounds of early spring, belonging to the time of the first peeping of the green. Yet courtship with the Chaffinch is a comparative prosaic matter. He generally finds a spouse at hand, and one unreluctant, willing to meet him half-way in his desires. He has not the ardour of temperament, the passion of the far-come, fiery Redstart, nor the tender gallantry of the two species of Flycatchers; nor has his hen the shy timidity, the reserve and coyness of the hens of those species. She wants little pursuing; so the courtship is of a quite modern kind, with nothing of a Gretna Green dash about it! However, if there appear a rival in the field, in the person of a second cock desirous of the same hen, there is a little more to-do. Then the singing is louder and more pugnacious; the cocks will follow each other jealously, to strut conceitedly with tail fanned so as to show its white rims, or alight after whirling in the air together, with the rounded back and gaping beak of amatory rage. The one cock that returns to stand by the hen, strikes a supremely conscious attitude, with tail disposed upward at a most unusual angle, as if to show off to her his gay plumage. And a fine fellow he is indeed, with exquisite blue tints of head, and pink of breast, and the slight touch of yellow on brown of his wing, as well as the great white patch. Indeed, this patch is sure to be larger (and in this particular Chaffinches differ considerably, as do Bramblings,) than his rival's; and perhaps it is beauty of plumage that decides the contest.

Everywhere, by the close of March, cocks and hens are conspicuously in pairs; and from that time the song, so loud and lusty through the month, begins to slacken. The cock is in fact engrossed with matrimony and mate, and for a time neglects to sing. For this is a momentous period. With nest-making and progeny in view, there is so much to consider! First, the right moment--which is different each season, according to the warmth and the bursting of the green, and the oncoming of insect-life--when the union may be risked, and the nest begun. Then there is the choosing of a site for the nest, equally important for the safety of the brood; whether it shall be among the prickly boughs of the holly, well-shaded with evergreen leaves, or within the fastness of a yew, or laid flat upon the high horizontal limb of a oak-tree, or deep in the upright fork of some small tree yet unbudded, elder or ash or thorn, or even on a convenient slab or wall; but any and everywhere, as prudence dictates, beyond the easy reach of the arm of a boy. In these deep matters of counsel the cock may take the lead, but it is certain he does none of the work; and the building of the nest he leaves entirely to the hen, so much smaller than he, so insignificantly brown, but for the single wing-patch of white for adornment! But small and brown, she is equal to the task--no bird better. Her talents for housewifery are high, and among birds there are few more artful builders than she. And it is true her master gives her his moral support. While she flits to and fro, plucking moss from the bark of the trees or picking it from the ground, then carrying and placing it, and working it skilfully with busy claw and beak and lowered head,--first forming a wee inside cup, and later coating this with moss or with lichen and, lastly, lining it with hair or with feathers,--in all these proceedings he is at hand, flying back and forth with her, eagerly watching, preceding her in every action, and no doubt greatly encouraging her. Certainly a building hen has been caught alone at her labours, hurrying and scurrying and cheeping excitedly as she tugs and tears at the moss, but as this happened as late as the 10th of June, the nest might have been a second one, when the cock had lost his first ardour.

I once indeed came across, as late as the 21st of May, a very singular nest, which I believe to have been made by an unmated bird (unseen). It was the loveliest little structure! seemingly only just finished, well-compacted as usual, with green moss outside; only round about its firm, neat edge was erected a row of feathers, the quill-ends embedded in the moss, and the tips curving inwards towards the centre, forming an airy palisade, which not even a hen Chaffinch could step between without disturbing. They were pure ornament,--the art-impulse, was it, of baulked desire, the expression in the songless hen, of thwarted instinct? At any rate, the nest was never used for eggs, as I believed from the first it was never meant for use; and a fortnight later the pretty thing was all dashed and bedraggled by rain.

The nest receives its last finishings in accordance with its surroundings. If in a green bush, it is kept brightly green with moss; if in a fork of grey ash-boughs, it is made grey with lichen; if in the gloom of a yew, the masses of rootlets of which it is largely formed are so interwoven and felted on the outside with moss and grey hair that it becomes a sombre hue. Cobwebs are sometimes discernible on it, and are used no doubt as an adhesive medium. It is small and spherical; the hen sitting on it is sunk in the deep cup and only shows from below a tail-tip and beak, or maybe one anxious eye peering down. There is little room in it for a crowded progeny, nor does the full complement of four or five specked eggs often take wing from it as perfect birds. Indeed, in my experience, the Chaffinch is an uncertain nester, and not infrequently deserts; it is, besides, a difficult bird to watch through its nest operations. Both anxious and prudent is it. In the few days' time when the nest is left to consolidate, and await its burden of eggs, the pair are always at hand, and know when it is detected. Then of the two, the little hen shows herself foremost in fear. And afterwards, she sits sedulously; while the budding green of May shrouds her post among the boughs; and caterpillars on which Chaffinches mostly rely as food for nestlings, are being hatched too (but by sun-heat and not breast-warmth) on the growing leaves around; and her leisured mate sings his loud song incessantly again, having little to do till the young are hatched.

When this happens, both parents display coolness and prudence. They never fuss, like some more excitable birds, and so draw attention to their nestlings; and they will, rather than betray the whereabouts of the nest to a watcher, gobble up the caterpillar they are carrying to it and move right away. Through this caution, young birds are brought out from (literally) the hedge-rows of highways; and no species of bird is more successful in turning the perils of population and agriculture. It is therefore very numerous in a farming country.

The Chaffinch is with us all the year. In winter it flocks with its fellows, preferring to face the hardships of cold and food scarcity, which drives so many species across seas, in company. A flock will often number from forty to sixty individuals, and no doubt changes ground under pressure of need. Still, within this nomadic circle of movement, there always remain local parties about lane and hedgerow, and a small persistent group about each homestead. In the flocks there is shown a tendency to separate according to sex, which has given the bird its Latin name of bachelor.

Ornithologically, the Chaffinch is placed, from the character of its beak, among the seed-eating finches, but its food is various. In April it may frequently be seen winging out from the tree after flies. In May and June, it is a great devourer of caterpillars, sidling along the large oak boughs to reach them, and carrying them to its nestlings. But, dainty tripper as it is, it finds much of its food upon the ground. In late summer, when deeply engaged there, I suspect it of picking the infinitesimal young green pods upon the white clover plants. Certainly it is fond of the larger pods of the yellow corydalis in a green state, and three birds may be found round one plant of the garden, pecking and munching them. In autumn it pillages our oat fields, and hangs round rick yards and indeed eats seeds of many kinds, drawing the heads of knapweed down to strip; while later it searches for sodden mast below the beech trees. It also relishes small animal morsels, for I lately discovered that it picks the minute grub from the spangle gall, after this has fallen from the oak-leaf in November. In February and March it crowds about the field where the farmer has spread manure, that is full of worms and grubs; and at all times of the year it frequents the road for the droppings. It rolls and cracks hard grain in the beak in true finch fashion.

The Chaffinch, being always with us, and numerically strong, is not much thought of. But from its cheerful, ubiquitous presence, its altogether lovely coat (in the male) of blue and chestnut-red and white and brown, it is a bird we should miss almost more than any, if Chaffinch-life should fail from off the earth. But this is not likely at present; no bird has thriven more than it in the evolutionist's struggle for existence.

Proofread May 2011, LNL