FINCH (Ger. Fink, Lat. Fringilla), a name applied (but almost always in composition—as bullfinch, chaffinch, goldfinch, hawfinch, &c.) to a great many small birds of the order Passeres, and now pretty generally accepted as that of a group or family—the Fringillidae of most ornithologists. Yet it is one the extent of which must be regarded as being uncertain. Many writers have included in it the buntings (Emberizidae), though these seem to be quite distinct, as well as the larks (Alaudidae), the tanagers (Tanagridae), and the weaver-birds (Ploceidae). Others have separated from it the crossbills, under the title of Loxiidae, but without due cause. The difficulty which at this time presents itself in regard to the limits of the Fringillidae arises from our ignorance of the anatomical features, especially those of the head, possessed by many exotic forms.
Taken as a whole, the finches, concerning which no reasonable doubt can exist, are not only little birds with a hard bill, adapted in most cases for shelling and eating the various seeds that form the chief portion of their diet when adult, but they appear to be mainly forms which predominate in and are highly characteristic of the Palaearctic Region; moreover, though some are found elsewhere on the globe, the existence of but very few in the Notogaean hemisphere can as yet be regarded as certain.
But even with this limitation, the separation of the undoubted Fringillidae into groups is a difficult task. Were we merely to consider the superficial character of the form of the bill, the genus Loxia (in its modern sense) would be easily divided not only from the other finches, but from all other birds. The birds of this genus—the crossbills—when their other characters are taken into account, prove to be intimately allied on the one hand to the grosbeaks (Pinicola) and on the other through the redpolls (Aegiothus) to the linnets (Linota)—if indeed these two can be properly separated. The linnets, through the genus Leucosticte, lead to the mountain-finches (Montifringilla), and the redpolls through the siskins (Chrysomitris) to the goldfinches (Carduelis); and these last again to the hawfinches, one group of which (Coccothraustes) is apparently not far distant from the chaffinches (Fringilla proper), and the other (Hesperiphona) seems to be allied to the greenfinches (Ligurinus). Then there is the group of serins (Serinus), to which the canary belongs, that one is in doubt whether to refer to the vicinity of the greenfinches or that of the redpolls. The mountain-finches may be regarded as pointing first to the rock-sparrows (Petronia) and then to the true sparrows (Passer); while the grosbeaks pass into many varied forms and throw out a very well marked form—the bullfinches (Pyrrhula). Some of the modifications of the family are very gradual, and therefore conclusions founded on them are likely to be correct; others are further apart, and the links which connect them, if not altogether missing, can but be surmised. To avoid as much as possible prejudicing the case, we shall therefore take the different groups of Fringillidae which it is convenient to consider in this article in an alphabetical arrangement.
Of the Bullfinches the best known is the familiar bird (Pyrrhula europaea). The varied plumage of the cock—his bright red breast and his grey back, set off by his coal-black head and quills—is naturally attractive; while the facility with which he is tamed, with his engaging disposition in confinement, makes him a popular cage-bird,—to say nothing of the fact (which in the opinion of so many adds to his charms) of his readily learning to “pipe” a tune, or some bars of one. By gardeners the bullfinch has long been regarded as a deadly enemy, from its undoubted destruction of the buds of fruit-trees in spring-time, though whether the destruction is really so much of a detriment is by no means so undoubted. Northern and eastern Europe is inhabited by a larger form (P. major), which differs in nothing but size and more vivid tints from that which is common in the British Isles and western Europe. A very distinct species (P. murina), remarkable for its dull coloration, is peculiar to the Azores, and several others are found in Asia from the Himalayas to Japan. A bullfinch (P. cassini) has been discovered in Alaska, being the first recognition of this genus in the New World.
The Canary (Serinus canarius) is indigenous to the islands whence it takes its name, as well, apparently, as to the neighbouring groups of the Madeiras and Azores, in all of which it abounds. It seems to have been imported into Europe at least as early as the first half of the 16th century, and has since become the commonest of cage-birds. The wild stock is of an olive-green, mottled with dark brown above, and greenish-yellow beneath. All the bright-hued examples we now see in captivity have been induced by carefully breeding from any chance varieties that have shown themselves; and not only the colour, but the build and stature of the bird have in this manner been greatly modified. The ingenuity of “the fancy,” which might seem to have exhausted itself in the production of topknots, feathered feet, and so forth, has brought about a still further change from the original type. It has been found that by a particular treatment, in which the mixing of large quantities of vegetable colouring agents with the food plays an important part, the ordinary “canary yellow” may be intensified so as to verge upon a more or less brilliant flame colour.
Very nearly resembling the canary, but smaller in size, is the Serin (Serinus hortulanus), a species which not long since was very local in Europe, and chiefly known to inhabit the countries bordering on the Mediterranean. It has pushed its way towards the north, and has even been several times taken in England (Yarrell’s Brit. Birds, ed. 4, ii. pp. 111-116). A closely allied species (S. canonicus) is peculiar to Palestine.
The Chaffinches are regarded as the type-form of Fringillidae. The handsome and sprightly Fringilla coelebs is common throughout the whole of Europe. Conspicuous by his variegated plumage, his peculiar call note and his glad song, the cock is almost everywhere a favourite. In Algeria the British chaffinch is replaced by a closely-allied species (F. spodogenia), while in the Atlantic Islands it is represented by two others (F. tintillon and F. teydea)—all of which, while possessing the general appearance of the European bird, are clothed in soberer tints. Another species of true Fringilla is the brambling (F. montifringilla), which has its home in the birch forests of northern Europe and Asia, whence it yearly proceeds, often in flocks of thousands, to pass the winter in more southern countries. This bird is still more beautifully coloured than the chaffinch—especially in summer, when, the brown edges of the feathers being shed, it presents a rich combination of black, white and orange. Even in winter, however, its diversified plumage is sufficiently striking.
With the exception of the single species of bullfinch already noticed as occurring in Alaska, all the above forms of finches are peculiar to the Palaearctic Region. (A. N.)
- About 200 species of these have been described, and perhaps 150 may really exist.
- The earliest published description seems to be that of Gesner in 1555 (Orn. p. 234), but he had not seen the bird, an account of which was communicated to him by Raphael Seiler of Augsburg, under the name of Suckeruögele.
- See also The Canary Book, by Robert L. Wallace; Canaries and Cage Birds, by W. A. Blackston; and Darwin’s Animals and Plants under Domestication, vol. i. p. 295. An excellent monograph on the wild bird is that by Dr Carl Bolle (Journ. für Orn., 1858, pp. 125-151).
- This fanciful trivial name was given by Linnaeus on the supposition (which later observations do not entirely confirm) that in Sweden the hens of the species migrated southward in autumn, leaving the cocks to lead a celibate life till spring. It is certain, however, that in some localities the sexes live apart during the winter.
- This call-note, which to many ears sounds like “pink” or “spink,” not only gives the bird a name in many parts of Britain, but is also obviously the origin of the German Fink and the English Finch. The similar Celtic form Pinc is said to have given rise to the Low Latin Pincio, and thence come the Italian Pincione, the Spanish Pinzon, and the French Pinson.
- This is especially the ease with F. teydea of the Canary Islands, which from its dark colouring and large size forms a kind of parallel to the Azorean Pyrrhula murina.