Saturday 15 September 2012

A Gluttonous Greenfinch

     I live  in a large town, but in a fairly leafy area which has always had a few birds and other wildlife to watch.   Robins, blackbirds and blue tits were always frequent garden visitors, but other species have  been fairly rare...until recently.    4 or 5 years ago I caught a glimpse of a pair of goldfinches flitting about in the trees in next door's garden.  A birdfeeder was purchased, stocked with peanuts, but the goldfinches did not return. My wife persevered, added more feeders, and even a couple of nest boxes.   Slowly the birds started to visit...greenfinches, coal tits, and great tits were early arrivals.  The addition of other seeds, particularly those of sunflowers tempted other species too.   The list now  includes long tailed tits,  nuthatches, greater spotted woodpeckers and quite a few other species.   Jays  take the peanuts daily, and the goldfinches have finally arrived in numbers, especially this year, to feed on the other seeds.   As many as 25 of them squabble on the feeders at any one time. 
One of the young goldfinches.
The goldfinches flock, often with a dozen or so greenfinches, adults and young alike. The goldfinches had two broods this year, and young with various developments of plumage colour are there to be seen.  Sparrows and starlings remain absent, and are observed in the garden no more than once a year.  A couple of hundred yards away is a council estate, and there, in the more open spaces between the houses, sparrows and starlings abound.  Maybe they don't like trees and shrubs?
     The flocks of green and goldfinches on the feeders are regularly scared off by the arrival of larger birds: jays, magpies, even collared doves.  They then perch in the dead sycamore tree in an adjacent garden, waiting until the coast becomes clear.   But one greenfinch, a young male, began to act differently last month.   Let's call him Gordon.  A few weeks ago Gordon became reluctant to leave the food. He would remain on the bird table, despite the nearby presence of jays and other big birds. And he really liked his food, eating so much that we began to notice an increase in his girth...quite a large increase in his girth. He has become quite fat, and thus is now easily recognised amongst the other greenfinches.
Typical Gordon: fat, fluffy and scruffy, food dripping from his chin, wings akimbo.
   As the days have passed he has become ever more attached to the food, rarely straying far from his next meal, a meal which usually is taken very soon after his short rests.  He no longer stands up, but squats down, legs invisible.  In the evening, when the other birds fly off to roost, he remains much later, finishing off the last scraps of food, finally, at dusk, hopping into the nearby privets to sleep away the night.  He can fly, but his flight is slow and fluttery, struggling to gain height.  His wings no longer seem to fit  properly, and won't lie flat against his ample body as he feeds.  When Nina, my wife, adds fresh food in the morning, Gordon remains on the table, no more than a couple of feet from her.  She has developed a soft spot for Gordon.  She has taken to shooing away the jays and magpies.  She stands in the lounge and tries to scare them away, so that her favourite smaller birds can get to the food.   The jays in particular are highly intelligent birds and are starting to ignore her, remaining on the patio, 3 or 4 yards away, wondering why this mad woman is wildly waving her arms about.  There were five of them on the patio one morning.
A jay, on the patio, ignoring me completely.
       I have feared for Gordon for some time.  His spot in the hedgerow is unlikely to remain warm enough as Winter approaches, and our bird table, with its regular visitors, has occasionally attracted the attention of a sparrowhawk.  We returned from shopping one day to find the bloodied remains of a male bullfinch on the back step.  So our Gordon, with his slow reactions, tendency to sleep on the feeders, and poor flight is, I feel, holding a very short straw.
       And indeed, he had a lucky escape yesterday evening.  As usual, he was on the table, long after the other goldies and greenies  had gone to roost.  As I watched he suddenly flew down to the ground, this being unusually athletic for Gordon.  He had spotted the sparrowhawk as it swooped in for the kill.  The hawk missed his target, and finished the attack perched on a patio seat.    Nina, protective of Gordon as ever, and not realising that the hawk had missed, leapt up and waved her arms around, scaring off the bird.   Two seconds later I would have had a superb photograph of it, not more than two yards away.   Had it either failed or  succeeded in its attack, there was no longer any point in it being scared away.  The deed was either done or not done, and it was far too late to wave at it through the window.   But I understand how she reacted, almost instinctively, to protect her little finch. So I bit my lip, and just about suppressed my wish to moan at her.
A photo of the same sparrowhawk, standing below the bird table.
There can, I am sure, only be one end game, Gordon will soon end up as breakfast, or perhaps supper for our local hawk.  He is too slow, too lazy, and the presence of many of his near relatives is too great an attraction for the sparrowhawk.  I have not, as yet, seen the hawk catch any birds, but she did snatch a woodmouse after swooping low across my lawn a few weeks ago, and then slowly dismembered the little rodent whilst perching in my apple tree.

Hawk With Partially Eaten Mouse.
A Day Later.

     After a day spent feeding heavily yesterday, Gordon is now nowhere to be seen.  We last saw him about 8 PM last night, as he flew off, to our surprise, into a nearby tree.    The hawk also visited us last night, and appeared to be hunting...and therefore hungry.    This morning the "sprawk" was back again, still looking for food, so maybe our greenfinch has survived, but moved on to stage a sit-in on someone else's bird feeders.   The hawk was near our feeders at 6.45 this morning, and in low light  ( 0.5 seconds at F 5.6 ) I managed this photo.   Very pleased with it, for, with the prevailing light conditions, cloud at dawn, I was lucky she ( I am fairly sure it is a female) did not move and blur the photograph.  Sunlight would have been far better of course!

The sparrowhawk stayed around for another hour or so, chasing and being chased by the jays, and finally being moved on by the magpies, which slowly crowded it out of its tree, by creeping ever nearer on the branches, chattering loudly.  I suspect it will be back, mainly mornings and evenings when the low light is to its advantage.

48 Hours Later Still

     Nina is a happy bunny again, ecstatic almost: Gordon has returned.   Two days away from the food have told on him, and he now looks a  little slimmer, as he joins 4 or 5 long tailed tits on the table.   He has also gained some degree of caution, following a lesson in living dangerously, and flies away when the magpies arrive.   He still doesn't fly as far away as the other birds, which effectively disappear, but satisfies himself with putting three or four yards between him and the nearest magpie.   But the sparrowhawk has, in Gordon's absence, visited each morning and evening.   Sometimes the hawk sits near the birdtable for up to 20 minutes at a time, which does not seem to be the best tactic, as it scares away all her potential prey, including Gordon.   But, and don't anyone tell Nina, I am sure Gordon is doomed before the week is out. Once the sprawk gets back into stealth fighter mode, and attacks under the radar, that will be it.


  1. sounds like gordon might have trichomoniasis looking at the photo hes bloated and hanging around the feeders and bird bath,the downside is hele spread it to your other greenfinches,my advice let the hawk take it.

  2. You may be right about the disease: but it was 6 years ago now ( have I really been blogging for so long), and I still have regular greenfinches, so all is well.