A Guide to British Finches [Fringillidae]
The finches (family Fringillidae) have undergone a significant revision in recent years. In addition to a change in sequence, there are changes to the generic names for many species.
They are all seed-eaters with more or less triangular bills. They have similar skull morphologies with round heads, moderately pointed wings with nine large primaries, forked or notched tails with 12 tail feathers and no crop. In many species the female is different in colour to the male and in all species, the female builds the nest, incubates the eggs, and broods the young.
Finches are divided into two subfamilies, the Fringillinae and the Carduelinae.
Subfamily Fringillinae (Finches)
The Fringillinae containing a single genus, Fringilla, with only three species two of which are found in Britain. Although seed eaters the fringilline finches raise their young almost entirely on arthropods.
Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)
The chaffinch is the UK’s second commonest breeding bird, and is arguably the most colourful of the UK’s finches.
Brambling (Fringilla montifringilla)
The brambling is a winter migrant from Scandinavia and Russia. Birds typically begin to arrive in September and will normally have departed by April.
(The third related species is the Tenerife blue chaffinch (Fringilla teydea) is only found on the Canary Islands).
Subfamily Carduelinae (True finches)
The Carduelinae, containing around 28 genera with 141 species. In Britain we have members of just eight genera.
The true finches are usually birds of woodland which specialise in eating seeds, each species having a distinctive bill morphology adapted for a particular range of weed or tree seeds. The cardueline finches raise their young on regurgitated seeds.
Greenfinch (Chloris chloris)
The greenfinch is a regular visitor in rural and urban gardens. Although quite sociable, they may squabble among themselves. The female and young birds are duller and have brown tones on the back.
A molecular phylogenetic study found that the greenfinches are not closely related to other members of the genus Carduelis. They have therefore been placed in the resurrected genus Chloris.
Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis)
The goldfinch is a highly coloured finch with a bright red face and yellow wing patch. Less common in upland areas and most numerous in southern England. Sociable, often breeding in loose colonies. Males and females are very similar, but females have a slightly smaller red area on the face. In winter many UK goldfinches migrate as far south as Spain.
Siskin (Spinus spinus)
Siskins have a distinctly forked tail and a long narrow bill. The male has a streaky yellow-green body and a black crown and bib. There are yellow patches in the wings and tail. The female is grey-green and lacks the black cap. It is mainly a resident breeder but is most numerous in Scotland and Wales. Many breeding birds are residents; in winter birds arrive here also from Europe.
Linnet (Linaria cannabina)
Males are attractively marked with crimson foreheads and breasts. Females and young birds lack the red and have white underparts with the breast streaked buff. They may be seen in large flocks during the winter.
Twite (Linaria flavirostris)
The twite is closely related to the linnet. It is a small, brown finch with a longer tail and stubbier bill. Its back is tawny, heavily streaked with dark brown and is white below with dark-brown streaks on its flanks. The rump is pink on males but brown on females. Like the linnet, it feeds on seeds year-round.
Lesser Redpoll (Acanthis cabaret)
It is the smallest, brownest, and most streaked of the redpolls. The adult male is largely brown above with darker streaks. It has a red forehead, a black chin and, during the breeding season, pink on the breast and face. The adult female is similar but lacks the pink on the breast and face and has less streaking on the flanks.
The relationships among the redpolls are unresolved.
Common Crossbill (Loxia curvirostra)
The crossbill is a chunky finch with a large head and bill, which is crossed over at the tips. This crossed bill is used to extract seeds from conifer cones. They are most often encountered in noisy family groups or larger flocks.
Scottish Crossbill (Loxia scotica)
It is the UK’s only endemic bird species (i.e. one found nowhere else in the world). It is thought to be restricted to Scottish pinewoods.
Adult males tend to be red or orange in colour, and females green or yellow, but there is much variation. The Scottish crossbill is extremely difficult to separate from the red and parrot crossbill, plumage distinctions are negligible and extreme care is needed to identify this species.
Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula)
The male bullfinch is unmistakable with his bright pinkish-red breast and cheeks, grey back, black cap and tail, and bright white rump. Females and young birds have grey-buff underparts. This species does not form large flocks outside the breeding season and is usually seen as a pair or family group.
Hawfinch (Coccothraustes coccothraustes)
The hawfinch is our largest finch, but despite its size it’s also the hardest to find. Southeast England is the stronghold of the hawfinch in Britain. The hawfinch is highly unusual among cardueline finches in that the male bird chooses the nest site and starts the construction. The sexes are similar. It’s a red-listed species, with a population that may number fewer than a thousand breeding pairs.
In addition to our native species the following occasional visitors have been recorded.
Serin; citril finch; common redpoll; Arctic redpoll; two-barred crossbill; parrot crossbill; trumpeter finch; scarlet rosefinch; pine grosbeak and evening grosbeak.