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Hawfinches return to UK in unusually high numbers

The rare, elusive hawfinch. Photo courtesy of RSPB

By Aston Lamb

AN EXCEPTIONAL number of hawfinches have come to the UK this winter after years of rapid decline.

Hawfinches, the UK’s largest finch, are a rare species of bird that are shy and there are thought to be fewer than 1,000 pairs in the UK. However, this year there have been hundreds of sightings.

Josh Jones, of the rare bird information website said: “The size of the invasion is unparalleled, with the numbers involved far exceeding anything previously witnessed in living memory.

“The theory is that a ‘perfect storm’ of a bumper breeding season, meaning a high population this autumn, and a failure of their food source across Central Europe, has pushed exceptional numbers westwards to Britain.

“The hawfinch has declined considerably in Britain in recent decades, and in a normal winter birdwatchers often have to travel considerable distances to the few regular and well-known wintering sites to see them.”

Andy Robinson, a spokesperson for RSPB Scotland, said: “Hawfinches are beautiful birds that really stand out when compared to our other finches, such as the much more common chaffinch.

“They’re normally very difficult to see, but with the large numbers already recorded further south this autumn, wildlife watchers in Scotland could be in for a treat.

“They may not be the most likely bird to visit your garden feeders, but they do like sunflower seeds. You also might see them in areas of woodland, such as parkland, or in botanic gardens and churchyards.”

Hawfinches, also nicknamed ‘The Christmas Nutcracker’ can be characterised by their parrot-like bills shaped ideally for cracking open tough nuts, a key to their survival in winter as it means they have a wider variety of food to choose from.

However, it is not known whether food is an issue for these birds right now. RSPB and Cardiff University scientists are studying the reasons why hawfinches do not nest in the UK as widely as they used to.

Matthew Oates, nature specialist at the National Trust, said: “The huge influx of hawfinches could be attributed to a failed seed crop elsewhere in Europe. We’ve had a bumper yield here in the UK, due to a fine spring, and the birds have been making the most of it.

“Many people are encountering this mythical bird for the first time, and we hope these sightings will inspire others to support their revival.”


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