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.
Hawfinches are a distinctive chunky finch, with a large round pale orange-chestnut head with contrasting black eye markings, and powerful wide bill being their most notable features. Their plumage consists of shades of light brown and orange, with a darker orange head fading into a paler buff-brown breast and belly.
Facial markings include a small black bib beneath the bill which extends to form a narrow ring around the upper bill and a black patch that reaches the eyes.
The nape of a male hawfinch is a greyish-buff, darkening into a deeper brown back. Wings are dark brown, with white and blue bars, and a black and white rump is visible in flight. The deep orange-brown tail is tipped with white.
Perhaps the most iconic feature, the wide, out-of-proportion bill, is light greyish-blue in winter and darkens to near-black in the summer. Legs are pinkish-brown and irises are reddish-brown.
Female hawfinches have similar markings to males, but can be fairly easily distinguished due to their plumage being paler and altogether less vibrant.
Juvenile hawfinches lack the bold contrasting plumage of adult birds, although some of the markings are evident in a muted form. Their colouring is more of a mottled yellowish-brown than the richer chestnut tones, but the early stages of faint wing barring can be seen, and the bill, already a distinctive feature, is a pale yellowish-brown.
Hawfinches are the largest member of the finch family, slightly smaller than a starling and around 6 cm larger than a blue tit. Males are slightly larger and heavier than females, with measurements and weights in the average range below:
Hawfinches are the largest members of the finch family
As hawfinches can be fairly hard to spot, hidden among the foliage of the upper canopy of woodlands, one way to positively ID the species is to learn to recognize their call, a sharp ‘tic’ sound, similar to that made by a robin. The song of the male hawfinch is a quiet, whistled series of flowing notes.
With their strong powerful beak, hawfinches can crush the outer shell of a cherry or plum stone with ease to reach the inner kernel. Fruit seeds are the key element of their diet, and food is mostly taken directly from trees.
Berries, and seeds from pine, spruce and hornbeam are also widely eaten and occasionally foraging takes place on the ground, where invertebrates are also caught, especially locusts, grasshoppers, beetles, worms and moths.
Young hawfinches are initially fed on invertebrates, including small insects, caterpillars and larvae. Softer seeds are also regurgitated until juvenile birds master the art of cracking harder shells themselves.
Close up of a Hawfinch feeding on sunflower seeds
For the best chance of seeing a hawfinch in its preferred habitat, head for mature broadleaf and coniferous forests, where dominant species include oak, horn-beam, beech, maple, pine, juniper, ash, elm and sycamore.
Woodlands that are crossed by rivers and streams are particularly popular, as well as plantations with wild and cultivated cherries, olives, plums and other fruit trees.
Central and southern Britain form the western extreme of the breeding range of hawfinches, and the species is present across northern Europe in spring and summer, as far east as Kazakhstan and Mongolia, and to the south from Spain, eastwards to northern Greece and northern Turkey.
In winter, southward migration is seen, with hawfinches wintering across Mediterranean Europe and north Africa, central Asia and southern and south-eastern China.
Up to 1.5 million pairs of hawfinches live across the species’ European range, with the highest concentrations in the Czech Republic, Germany and Romania. Around 100,000 pairs live and breed in Russia, with up to 10,000 more in Turkey.
Hawfinches are usually spotted in mature broadleaf and coniferous forests
During the breeding season, hawfinches are notoriously hard to spot, as their favourite spots are high in the canopy layer of mature woodland trees.
With only between 500 and 1,000 breeding pairs, they are considered a rare breeding species in the UK, although in winter, native numbers are boosted by the arrival of temporary migrants seeking refuge from extremely harsh conditions in continental Europe.
In the British Isles, hawfinches have declined in many areas, with the main remaining strongholds found in western England near the Welsh Borders, the Home Counties and the south-east from Hampshire to Kent.
Sightings are also occasionally reported at conservation reserves such as Nagshead in Gloucestershire and Blean Woods in Kent.
Male foreground, and female background, Hawfinch pair perched on a rock
Under typical circumstances, hawfinches can expect to live for between 2 and 5 years. The oldest individual recorded from ringing data was 10 years, while first time breeding takes place from one year of age.
Nests are often built in extremely vulnerable locations, for example in an exposed fork in a tree trunk. This leaves them open to predation, as nests are visible and lack the shelter offered by foliage, meaning their nests, eggs and young are frequently preyed on by woodland birds of prey such as sparrowhawks and goshawks, as well as squirrels and jays.
The Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981 protects hawfinches against being deliberately killed, harmed or caught to be kept in captivity.
With a maximum of 1,000 breeding pairs remaining in the UK, it’s no wonder that the hawfinch has red status on the British Birds of Conservation Concern list. However, across the species’ European range, it is not classed as under threat and is rated as being of least concern.
Male Hawfinch taking a drink of water
Hawfinches select nest sites in the upper branches of well-established mixed woodland, in ivy, or in fruit trees. Nests are often placed in an easy-to-access spot, such as the fork of a tree, which can leave their nest and eggs vulnerable to predators.
Nest construction is started by the male hawfinch, who gathers dry twigs, grass and lichen to form a nest platform. Fine-tuning then passes to the female, who constructs a large, bulky cup using more twigs and grasses, and then lines it with plant fibres before laying begins.
Hawfinch eggs can be a range of different colours, and are usually pale blue to greyish-green, but occasionally are pale buff or even pure white. Eggs measure 24×18 mm and are heavily streaked with blackish-brown spots and blotches.
The female hawfinch incubates the eggs alone for between 11 and 13 days, after which hatchlings are fed by both parents until they are ready to fledge at around 12 to 13 days.
Hawfinches form long-term pairs during the winter, and these have been observed to last beyond the end of a single breeding season.
Hawfinch nest with five eggs inside
Hawfinches will defend the territory around their nest site during the breeding season, and have been observed to live in loose colonies as well as in solitary pairs.
For the rest of the year they associate in larger flocks to forage together, with records of up to 1,200 birds gathering together ahead of migration.
Outside of the breeding season, hawfinches are known to roost communally, in the upper branches of woodland canopy.
Hawfinch with two Greenfinches, during the winter
Throughout much of Europe, hawfinch populations are year-round residents, although across the continent numbers increase during winter months with the arrival of birds from the easternmost regions of their range in northern and central Asia.
Areas across southern and Mediterranean Europe do not have breeding populations of hawfinches, but provide overwintering grounds to hawfinch populations that breed in the northernmost extents of their distribution range.
Between 500 and 1,000 pairs of hawfinches breed in the UK each year, and remain as residents throughout the year.
These native birds are joined by up to 15,000 migrant birds between October and March each year, typically relocating temporarily from Central Asia when local conditions make it harder to find food.
Hawfinch turning in flight, from below
Hawfinches are particularly attracted to woodland with a diverse range of native tree species, and will thrive in areas such as arboretums, where they can forage at will for a range of different fruits and seeds.
On rare occasions, hawfinches may pay fleeting visits to back garden feeders, where sunflower seeds are a particular favourite.
16.5cm to 18cm
29cm to 33cm
48g to 62g
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.
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.
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.
The Bullfinch is an unobtrusive but beautiful woodland bird, and an occasional garden visitor.
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