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How to get bullfinches in your garden: 5 things to do to attract these beautiful birds

Bullfinches are one of Britain’s most beautiful birds, but they are also one of its shiest. Here are five tricks I use to get the bullfinches in my garden to pose for their portraits like this: 
how to get bullfinches in your garden
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A garden for bullfinches

With its smart black cap and tail, bright pinky-red breast, and eye-catching white rump, so conspicuous in flight, the bullfinch is a bird just asking to be painted. The problem is that it is such a shy bird. It tends not to stray far from cover unless traveling directly between feeding areas and is rarely obliging to anyone trying to watch and photograph it. Some people are able to get bullfinches to feed at their bird table. But my local bellowing, yes that is the collective noun, of bullfinches, prefer natural food. No matter what I put out for them to eat, they have no desire to join the other birds at my feeding station. Here’s four things I did to persuade bullfinches to feed in my garden:

how to get bullfinches in your garden
Choose plants that will provide seed heads in the winter
1. Plant native shrubs and hedging get bullfinches to feed in your garden all year round

Bullfinches have a tendency to devour buds and berries and are therefore unpopular with many gardeners and fruit growers. But in my garden, I prefer to see the birds than the blossom. It has meant I have had to work hard to get them to visit regularly. Throughout the garden and adjacent one-acre plot I have planted more than 500 metres of native mixed hedging and 1,500 shrubs and trees, most of them chosen for their blossom, berries and seeds.

2. Listen out for a bullfinch call

I now have a garden that is just right for year-round bullfinch watching. But the fact that they are here doesn’t necessarily make them so easy to spot. The first thing you have to do is listen out for their call. In spring and summer, the song of a bullfinch is insignificant and faint. It can only really be heard at close quarters and I have only accurately identified a bullfinch’s call twice in my lifetime. It’s a creaky warble unlike that of any other bird. And it is the unusual nature of the sound that gave it away on both occasions.

However, the presence of bullfinches is revealed by their more distinctive contact call. This is a soft, piping ‘dew’,  repeated at regular intervals as the bird moves along a hedgerow feeding. It was this call that gave away the arrival of about half a dozen bullfinches in my garden late one November. That and the way they set about clearing all the juicy honeysuckle berries a few metres from my studio window. This was a real treat for me as I could continue painting the picture on my easel and photograph the bullfinches at the same time.

how to get bullfinches in your garden
Honeysuckle berries are the first to be devoured
how to get bullfinches in your garden
Pyracantha attract bullfinches next
3. Plant pyracantha, honeysuckle and guelder to get bullfinches to feed in your garden

It had been a good year for berries and I was able to follow the group as they moved from bush to bush, stripping each one before moving on to the next as it, in turn, ripened. By the time all the honeysuckle berries had been devoured, the guelder rose berries were ripe and the next meal of choice. By the end of November the original half dozen bullfinches were joined by another group of six and all started to feast on the newly ready-to-eat pyracantha berries.

I’ve planted more than 30 bushes of pyracantha in my garden and at that time of year and well into the New Year they are laden with berries. As winter progresses, food becomes increasingly scarce for birds and by mid January most berries have either been eaten or are frost damaged. This is when I take advantage of the short food supply to get some good photographs for my paintings.

4. Leave dock seeds out to get bullfinches in your garden in winter

About five years ago I noticed some bullfinches feeding on dock leaf seed heads. Intrigued I took a closer look at this perennial weed. I discovered that the seed heads were filled with shiny black seeds, slightly larger than an oil seed rape seed and equally full of precious oils. So I gathered up several bundles of docks from all around our area and stood them in a long plank of wood with holes drilled in. I positioned this plank outside my kitchen window. I now do this every year; it works better than planting these undesirable weeds in the garden and I can position them so that I get a good view of the birds as they feed.

5. Offer running water to get bullfinches in your garden

The bullfinches also love my garden pond which has running water and so never freezes. They come for regular baths and refreshing drinks of water. These birds really do shine out on a winter’s day and seeing them always puts a smile on my face.


For more ideas on how to plant your garden to attract the birds you love to see click here to read my blog post on how I turned my garden into a haven for birds: 

How I turned my garden in to a haven for birds


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