Greenfinches squeak like an unoiled wheelbarrow

Greenfinches song includes an extended wheeze which sounds remarkably like a squeaky wheelbarrow wheel.

Like chaffinches, greenfinches are nesting now, holding onto their territories with a mix of calls and song, the most distinctive of which sounds like the drawn out squeak of an unoiled wheelbarrow wheel. I know as, until recently, each time I set off for the allotment with the wheelbarrow loaded with tools, I would be accompanied by a teeth jarring extended squeal and remember that once again I had forgotten to oil the wheel. Yesterday, I eventually got out the WD40 and a job of seconds was done!

I regularly hear this squeak, or wheeze as I walk round the Castle Mound; greenfinches love the thick hedges adjacent to the fields. While it sounds quiet on the recording above, the sound is really quite loud and distinctive. Greenfinches can also make a sound like a quiet version of a pneumatic drill: a rapid thud, thud, thud. This recording of a bird in Spain combines the wheeze and the thud. While any equivalences of sound require a bit of imagination, I find they help a lot when learning to pick out new bird songs.

Male greenfinch, with chunky bill and yellow wing and tail edges. Photo thanks to pixabay.

I don’t often see the greenfinches themselves, but I am glad to know they are there. Do they come to your bird feeder? Occasionally they come to ours. Look out for their greenish bodies, and yellow wing edges. As with the chaffinch, the females are drabber – more brown than green, with a thinner yellow wing edge. Like the chaffinch they have a thickset bill, designed for cracking seeds.

Greenfinches have had a hard time since 2005, when birds started to be badly affected by the disease trichomonosis, causing a massive drop in their numbers. In winter 2005, greenfinches were seen in three-quarters of gardens, in 2011, in only half of gardens. There has been concern that this disease is passed between birds at bird feeders, so there has been increased reporting of the importance of keeping feeders clean. A message we have become unfortunately familiar with ourselves lately… Their numbers are now on the up, perhaps because of a growth in resistance to the disease combined with increased cleaning of feeders. That is so why I am so glad to hear their unoiled wheelbarrow like squeak when I am out and about…

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Fast bowler song of male chaffinches

Male chaffinch with blue grey head and rosy breast. Image by Karen Arnold from Pixabay

Chaffinches are singing loudly now as they start to nest. I have heard them all round the village, whenever I have been near an area with grown out hedge or scrubby trees. If you learn their song, you have a head start on being able to spot them as you know what you are looking for. I hear their song and know to look at the edge branches or near the top of a scrubby bush, from where males are keeping a sharp eye on their territory.

Chaffinches’ song is loud and repeated. I was taught to think of the song as sounding like a fast bowler. A male chaffinch starts with a repeated note that gets ever faster, and ends with a flourish at the end – just like the bowler who finishes her run with the flick of her arm over her head as she throws the ball. (Or he, of course.) If you don’t already know it, listen out for it as you walk round the village and I am sure you will hear it.

Males are striking birds with blue-grey heads, with a dash of black above their bill, and a rusty-rosy red breast. Even when shaded, the double white stripe – wing bars – can usually be picked out. If you can only see a silhouette look at the shape of the bill – its stoutness shows you are looking at a finch, with a bill designed for crunching seeds.

Drabber female chaffinch, Image by Jürgen Richterich from Pixabay

As so often in the bird world, for reasons of practicality, females are drabber! A bird with a male’s colouring sitting on a nest would easily be spotted by a predator.

Chaffinches build one of the most beautiful nests of any of our bird species. Often wedged in a fork of a tree and carefully camouflaged on the outside with mosses, lichens and spider webs, the nest becomes almost invisible.

A cosy chaffinch nest decorated with mosses, lichen and spider webs for camouflage. (Taken from a tree last September after the breeding season was well over.)

I was called some years ago by a distressed villager who had been pulling at ivy on a tree and out tumbled a nest and chicks. We tried putting the nest back in the tree but it was too damaged and the adult birds didn’t return… So resist gardening that disturbs vegetation in trees, or scrubby areas until mid-July at least, any cutting back of hedges needs to wait til August.

A tiny shell fragment indicates this nest hatched successfully

Have you found an egg shell lying in the middle of your lawn? As I got this nest out to photograph, I noticed a fragment of shell at its base. If parent birds took the easy option of throwing the egg shells over the side of the nest, predators would be given a clue that a nest was above. Instead, parent birds carry off the shell, and discard it away from the nest. Hence that find of an egg shell in the middle of your lawn – its a good sign – somewhere nearby a nest has safely hatched chicks. So back to the fragment of shell I saw in the chaffinch’s nest. That is the tiny scrap of shell that the chick will have pecked out with its egg tooth, and too small for the parents to carry away and discard. People who monitor nesting success – which provides important information for why a bird species is doing well or not – look for a tiny bits of shell like this in the bottom of a nest – a great sign that the nest hatched successfully. All that singing from the male bird, all the sitting from the female, has resulted in chicks. Hurrah!

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