One of the most common birds to visit back gardens in the UK – and also one of the most easy to identify – the chaffinch is a colourful and tuneful finch, known for its cheery, repetitive trilled song. They live in a wide range of habitats, and with more than 5 million breeding pairs, it shouldn’t be too difficult to tick one off your bird spotting list if you know where to look.
Male chaffinches are particularly distinctive among garden birds, with a reddish-pink face, breast and belly. Their crown and nape are blue-grey, and their upper back is chestnut brown, leading to a greenish rump.
Their tail is black with white sides, and their black wings are barred with yellow and white bands.
Male chaffinches have a blue bill during the breeding season, which becomes a pinkish-grey once breeding ends.
Close up of an adult male Chaffinch
Female chaffinches are nowhere near as striking as their male counterparts, although they do share the same marking patterns – just in muted shades of brownish-green and grey-white.
Their upper parts are pale olive greenish-brown, and their underparts are greyish-white. Their tails are dark brown, marked with a yellow central stripe, and their brown wings are barred with yellow and white feathers.
Juvenile chaffinches are similar in colouring to females but slightly more of a greyish-yellow colour than olive-brown. After undergoing an initial moult, young chaffinches gain their full adult plumage at around 16 weeks.
Male and female chaffinches are roughly the same size, and are classed as medium birds in the finch family. They are slightly smaller than greenfinches and bullfinches, but larger than goldfinches, siskins and redpolls.
In Britain in the 19th century, the chaffinch was popular as a caged songbird, and people would bet on its singing.
As well as being one of the most colourful garden birds, chaffinches are also one of the most tuneful, particularly the males. Male chaffinches have a repertoire of six different songs, which they belt out on rotation.
The 'pink' call of a chaffinch, is a social contact call, heard when perched. A rain call is also well-known, consisting of a buzzing note that can signal wet weather on the horizon.
But arguably, the most recognisable chaffinch song is a descending series of musical notes, ending in a melodic flourish – and usually repeated several times in quick succession from the upper branches of nearby trees.
david m, XC613420. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/613420.
The main diet of chaffinches is invertebrates, in particular caterpillars, but a variety of other insects are also readily eaten. In winter, seeds become a key element of a chaffinch’s diet.
They are often seen foraging on the ground in gardens, scouring grass and fallen leaves for any natural seeds or tiny insects.
In winter months berries and nuts may also be eaten by hungry chaffinches. They don’t usually eat from hanging feeders or bird tables, preferring instead to hop around on the ground below and picking up any seeds, nuts or mealworms that have been spilled by other visiting birds.
For a more in-depth guide to what chaffinches eat, check out this article.
Chaffinch babies are mostly fed insects and invertebrates by their parents. If insects are in short supply, then seeds may be fed instead, but insects offer a vital source of protein in their early days.
Close up of a Chaffinch fledgling being fed by adult bird
Chaffinches are found in a variety of habitats, including farmland, parkland, open woodland, hedgerows, and back gardens. Preferred trees include oak, which offers a large source of insect life, and beech, which provides a good supply of seeds in winter months.
The breeding range of chaffinches extends across Europe, north Africa and north-west Asia.
In winter, chaffinches that breed in the furthest northern extremes of their range, in north-west Asia, migrate to southern Asia. The species has been successfully introduced into South Africa and New Zealand.
Chaffinches are widespread in all parts of the UK, and live in a diverse range of habitats, including open woodlands, hedgerows, fields, parks and gardens, in both rural and urban areas.
Close up of a singing Chaffinch in its natural habitat
Chaffinches are Britain’s most common finch species, and rank in the country’s top five breeding birds, alongside wrens, robins, blackbirds and house sparrows. The UK population of chaffinches was estimated at around 5.05 million breeding pairs in 2020.
As one of the UK’s top five breeding birds, you won’t have to travel too far to stand a good chance of spotting a chaffinch. They are common in parks, woodlands and gardens, particularly open deciduous woodland and parkland in residential and suburban areas.
In spring, winter visitors gather in open countryside ahead of their migration to their breeding grounds in northern and north-eastern Europe.
A lifespan of around 3 years is usual for a chaffinch, with first-time breeding at one year. An individual ringed bird that reached the ripe old age of 13 years and 11 months was found in 2011.
Like many garden birds of a similar size, the top predators of chaffinches include sparrowhawks and pet cats. Chaffinch nests, eggs and young are at risk of being raided by birds such as crows or magpies, and mammals including squirrels, stoats and weasels.
As with all wild birds that live in Britain, chaffinches are protected from being intentionally killed, injured or captured by the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981. Under the same act, their eggs and nest site are also protected from being damaged or destroyed.
Chaffinches are far from endangered in the UK, as they are among the country’s most common breeding birds.
With more than 5 million resident breeding pairs and a IUCN rating as a species of least concern, we’re not going to have to worry about chaffinches disappearing from our parks, gardens and woodlands any time soon.
Male Chaffinch in flight, greeting a perched female
Chaffinches build deep, cup-shaped nests, usually in the fork of a tree or tucked deep inside shrubs, bushes and hedgerows. While nesting spots are most commonly chosen in countryside locations, back garden bushes or hedges alongside footpaths and in parks or allotments may also be used.
The main nest structure is crafted from lichen, moss and dried grasses, while the inside is lined with thin roots, feathers and hair. Chaffinch nests are particularly sturdy but are only used once – chaffinches normally raise one sole brood in a season, and do not reuse nests in subsequent years.
For more information on chaffinch nesting, check out this guide.
Male Chaffinch looking after the young chicks in the nest
Chaffinch eggs are small, smooth and either off-white or very pale blue, speckled with small purple-brown markings that are more concentrated at one end. The eggs measure 15 mm by 19 mm (0.6 in by 0.7 in), and weigh 2.2g (0.1 oz).
The typical clutch size is between 4 and 5 eggs, which are then incubated by the female chaffinch alone, for between 12 and 13 days.
Pair bonds between chaffinches will usually last more than one season, with pairs reuniting in subsequent years to raise broods together again.
Once the breeding season ends, males tend to remain in their home territory throughout the winter, while females disperse southwards in search of slightly warmer weather. In spring, females return and reunite with their mate to breed once more.
Chaffinch from behind
Chaffinches use the same breeding territories year after year and defend them aggressively from other birds. The male is particularly territorial, using loud, powerful song as his first form of defence to warn off intruders.
Britain’s breeding chaffinch populations are resident all year round, and while they do not technically migrate when the temperatures drop, females may leave their home territory temporarily in search of slightly warmer weather a short distance away. Males, however, remain in their breeding territory, protecting it until the following spring.
Each autumn and winter, the number of chaffinches on British soil increases considerably, with the arrival of overwintering birds from northern and north-eastern Europe.
There are no specific collective nouns for a group of Chaffinches, but you can use finch-specific ones such as:
24.5cm to 28.5cm
18g to 29g
A rare breeding bird in the UK, twite numbers have dropped dramatically in northern England since 1990, with only a handful of pairs remaining. Efforts are ongoing to revive the UK breeding population, with further pairs nesting in Wales and across Scotland, which is joined by migrants from northern Europe during winter months.
One of twenty species in the Spinus genus, Eurasian Siskins are small widespread finches with predominantly yellow/green plumage. Not uncommon in gardens in the winter, birdwatchers are most likely to encounter these agile little birds in coniferous forests and plantations.
Serins are the smallest European member of the finch family. Rare reports exist of breeding serins in isolated parts of the UK, and small numbers might be seen during migration passage each year, although sightings are not guaranteed.
Unique to the Caledonian pine forests of the Scottish Highlands, the Scottish crossbill is the UK mainland’s only endemic bird species that is not found anywhere else in the world. Visually, it’s relatively hard to distinguish Scottish crossbills from the two other crossbill species (common crossbill and parrot crossbill) found in the UK.
A rare breeding bird in Britain, found mainly in pine forests in the Scottish Highlands, the parrot crossbill is both the rarest and the largest of the three crossbill species found in the UK. Similar in plumage to the red crossbill and common crossbill, the key identifying features of the parrot crossbill lie in the shape of its head shape, its bill structure and the pitch of its song.
A seed-eating finch, widespread throughout much of the UK, linnets are a colourful presence on heathlands and scrublands, particularly in coastal areas or in hedgerows on agricultural land, where they feed on weed seeds, including dandelion and dock, around the edges of cultivated fields.
A tiny finch, only marginally larger than a blue tit, the lesser redpoll is an acrobatic streaky seed-eater, that can be seen all year round throughout Ireland, in much of Wales, northern England and parts of northern and central Scotland.
Britains largest finch, the hawfinch is unmistakable due not only to its size and light chestnut colouring, but mainly because of its giant, almost cartoon-like bill. They are fairly secretive birds, and with a maximum 1,000 breeding pairs in the UK, sightings would certainly count as memorable.
Identified by its distinctive yellow wing patches and wheezing call, the Greenfinch is a common garden bird throughout the United Kingdom.
The European goldfinch is common across southern England, and can frequently be seen feeding on the seeds of thistles, teasels and other scrubland vegetation.Goldfinches are enjoying a population boom, with garden visits reported to be up 70 percent on numbers seen 20 years ago.
The common rosefinch (Carpodacus erythrinus) is resident in forest and woodland habitats across northern Europe and Asia, and, as its name suggests, has a plumage marked with various shades of red and pink.
This medium sized finch is a specialised feeder with a chunky downwards curving beak which is crossed at its end giving rise to its descriptive name.
One of the smaller members of the finch family, the common redpoll breeds in northern latitudes and despite their tiny, fragile body size, can survive in bleak Arctic tundra landscapes.
The Bullfinch is an unobtrusive but beautiful woodland bird, and an occasional garden visitor.
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