Chaffinch: the bird profiles
Know the difference between a male and female chaffinch? Could you spot their young? Here’s everything you should know about the chaffinch.
The chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) is the most widespread finch in Western Europe. A frequent visitor to domestic gardens, chaffinches have a loud, penetrating song and eye-catching plumage. During the winter months, the males tend to struggle for food at home, whilst the females migrate south. It is for this reason that Carl von Linné, the legendary Swedish naturalist and founder of modern taxonomy who observed this behaviour, gave the chaffinch its Latin name: “coelebs“, which means “unmarried” or “celibate”. Find out more about the colourful, little finch here.
- Chaffinch: key facts
- How to recognise the chaffinch
- How to recognise a young chaffinch
- How to recognise a chaffinch egg
- How to tell the difference between male and female chaffinches
- What is the perfect habitat for chaffinches?
- Where do chaffinches build their nests?
- When is the breeding season for chaffinches?
- Where do chaffinches spend winter?
- What does a chaffinch’s song sound like?
- Help the chaffinch!
Chaffinch: key facts
|Lifespan||Approximately 5 years|
|Habitat||Forests, parks and gardens|
|Food preferences||Insects in summer, seeds in winter|
|Threats||Decline in insect populations and natural habitat|
How to recognise the chaffinch
As is the case for all finches, chaffinches have strong, triangular beaks that are excellent for breaking open seeds. The chaffinch distinguishes itself further with its plumage: a grey head and, for the males, a rust-red breast and stomach. Both males and females are characterised by strong, white stripes that bandage their dark wings; you should be able to notice these even when the chaffinch is in flight.
How to recognise a young chaffinch
Young chaffinches are not as colourful as their parents. They have grey-green to grey-brown plumage, somewhat resembling adult females. However, you should be able to pick out juvenile chaffinches from their white-banded wings and typical finch beak.
How to recognise a chaffinch egg
Female chaffinches lay four to five bluish eggs per clutch. The eggs are around 19 x 15 millimetres in size and are covered with brown-purple spots. Chaffinches protect their eggs in a nest made of grass, moss, roots and tiny twigs. Nests are cupped, padded with feathers and camouflaged on the outside with lichen and cobwebs.
How to tell the difference between male and female chaffinches
Male chaffinches are extremely colourful and easy to spot. Their cheeks, belly and chest are rust-red and, typically, the top of a male chaffinch’s head is blue-grey – the same colour as its neck. Females are much plainer. They are more grey-green in colour, similar to the female house sparrow. The strong, white bands across the chaffinch’s wings however, will distinguish it from the sparrow.
What is the perfect habitat for chaffinches?
The chaffinch is very adaptable. Chaffinches prefer forests, hedges and thickets, but also feel at home in parks and gardens with large trees. They don’t shy from humans, and so are easy to spot at feeding stations in the winter. Generally, chaffinches only avoid open spaces.
Where do chaffinches build their nests?
Chaffinches breed in dense hedges and trees. They usually build their nests in the fork of a tree, several metres from the ground. Females are responsible for nest building, with males guarding against attack and other male suitors. In rare cases, two broods are raised in a single season; one after the other in separate locations and separate nests.
When is the breeding season for chaffinches?
Chaffinches breed from May to June. The exact month depends on the temperatures in spring; the warmer the spring, the earlier the breeding season. After a 10- to 16-day incubation period, chaffinch hatchlings arrive blind and helpless into the world. They are dependent on their parents’ care – fathers guard the nest, whilst mothers provide food – for two weeks. And even after the young chaffinches have left the nest, both parents continue to support their chicks with food until they are independent.
Where do chaffinches spend winter?
Chaffinches are part of a family of birds whose populations split; some will migrate south for the winter, whilst the rest stays put. In the UK however, native chaffinches can be seen year-round. Often in winter, groups of chaffinches form and search for food in flocks.
What does a chaffinch’s song sound like?
Usually, chaffinches only sing during breeding season. And when they do sing, you‘ll hear it! The chaffinch song begins with a series of accelerating whistles, before moving to longer tones that decrease in pitch.
In addition to singing, the chaffinch also has a number of calls which, like a dialect, can vary slightly from region to region. One of the more famous of these is its “rain-call” that warns of impending rain. Chaffinches are prone to singing their rain-call after the rain has begun – so don’t trust it too much!
Help the chaffinch!
If you want to attract chaffinches to your garden, or simply support the chaffinch in its daily struggle for resources, here are some simple ways to do just that.
What do chaffinches eat?
In summer, chaffinches feed mainly on insects. To feed their young, the colourful finch will look for protein-rich butterfly caterpillars. During winter, however, the chaffinch is vegetarian, dieting mostly on seeds, which it breaks open with its powerful beak. If you would like to help the chaffinch during winter, reach for grains like sunflower-seed, crushed peanut and poppy seed.
Which birdhouses are suitable for chaffinches?
Since chaffinches nest openly in trees or bushes, a birdhouse is not necessarily helpful. Bird boxes are much more suitable for tits and starlings. Instead, natural sites for nesting should be encouraged: try not to thin out hedges too much as they offer the birds shelter.
How can I support chaffinches even more?
As well as feeding them in winter, you can also support chaffinches in summer. Since chaffinches only eat insects during this time, try to minimise your use of chemical sprays.
You can support chaffinches further, especially in rearing their young, by attracting caterpillars. Try popular edibles such as blackberry, goat willow, nettle and blackthorn.
If you would like to discover more about your native garden birds, take a look at our other bird profiles, like the goldfinch and the wren.