One of the great pleasures of staying in Tréguennec is eating meals in the garden. We sit at a lovely wooden table at the back of the house from where we look down over a sloping lawn with its quirkily curved path – a hand-me-down from the previous owners. To the right is tall mock-orange bush with a lush mantle of leaves. Just past the bush is a covered bird table perched on a pole and kept filled with seeds.
During meals, apart from eating and chatting we look at the birds as they go about their business. For years my favourites have been robins and blue tits but just recently my allegiance has changed – I have fallen for the chaffinches. I should be more precise – for a chaffinch. I say ‘a’ because chaffinches are fiercely territorial so it is likely that it has been the same chaffinch that I have seen for the last few years.
I love robins with their wonky red breasts, and feel similarly towards blue tits with their neat yellow bibs, white tuckers, and blue caps and backs, but now I find the male chaffinch even more attractive with his beautifully understated blue cap, coppery-orange neck turning gradually into a peach coloured belly (see first illustration). As can be seen in the illustration, his colours are altogether more flamboyant than those of his female partner.
The calendar of our time in Brittany this year has followed much the same pattern as it did before the pandemic We were here from mid-March to late April, later returning in early June with plans to stay through the summer. As for our chaffinch, he stays all year round and will have welcomed back his partner in the early spring. Chaffinch couples practice life-long monogamy and while he will have guarded his Tréguennec territory over winter, she will have been in the south of France, Spain or perhaps North Africa recovering from the labours of last year and building herself up for the demanding months to come.
Before her return the male will have decided where she should build this year’s nest and during our Spring visit her building started as she collected the essential raw materials. We saw some of her errands as she carried twigs for the nest’s outer layer, but she will also have collected feathers, grass, moss and the like for a soft inner lining for the nestlings. It was actually months before we discovered the nest’s exact whereabouts.
When we returned in June the fruits of her nest building were clear as she and her mate were feeding five large fledglings. While they were old enough to fly they still had skills to learn – it would often take several attempts to navigate on to the bird table!
Soon parental patterns changed. Mrs Chaffinch started to stay for long periods in the mock-orange bush while her partner would pay fleeting visits. Through some judicious peeping we finally discovered what was going on. Their nest was lodged low in the bush and she was sitting on the eggs hatching a second brood; on his visits he was feeding her. Soon the new brood were hatched and weeks later they flew off.
As we watched the birds it became apparent that the father had adopted a new and endearing life style. Once rather shy, as befits chaffinches generally, he was now happy to come up close to the table as we ate. At the same time he became less ‘jumpy’. For long periods – sometimes minutes – he would sit still on a branch by the nest apparently contemplating; a behaviour most unlikely his a year ago. And when he ate, rather than hurriedly gobbling up seeds and flying off, he would take one or two, then stop and look around, before taking another picking. In every way, life for him now seemed more measured.
With the second brood flown, something happened to bring me closer to the female chaffinch. After a heavy storm, the now empty nest was dislodged and Rohan found its inner layer on the lawn where it fell. In April, when the nest was being built, after cutting my hair Rohan had left the trimmings outside on the terrace expressly for nest building. It was now clear that they had been used. Unbeknownst to us, in her foraging Mrs Chaffinch had carefully collected and recycled my cut hair (see second illustration)
Finding that she had taken my hair to line the nest and that it had provided the fledglings of ‘our’ Chaffinch family with a cosy start to life gave me enormous pleasure if not pride. Importantly, it also extended my feelings of warmth – initially I was only interested in Mr Chaffinch, but through her careful and productive work on the nest I now felt warm to Mrs Chaffinch too!
The first illustration is a photo of a painting in ‘A Colour Guide to Familiar Garden and Field Birds’ which shows a male and female chaffinch. The book, a present from my son Joshua, was given to me for my birthday in 1977 when he was two! The picture was painted by Kvetoslav Hisek.
The second illustration shows silver hairs woven into the lining of the nest of ‘our’ chaffinch. The inside of the nest was dislodged by a storm from the mock-orange bush that overhangs the terrace in our Tréguennec garden.
For helping me write this blog I would like to thank Marie, Jeni, Rohan and Vivien.