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The Chaffinch – lucky to live in Europe

Chaffinch (Iberian) ( Fringilla coelebs balearica) male in Galicia
Chaffinch (Iberian) ( Fringilla coelebs balearica) male in Galicia

Surprisingly, for such a well-known bird, there are quite a few subspecies, or races of the common Chaffinch, which are based on differences in the pattern and colour of the adult male bird’s plumage. Experts differ concerning the total number of subspecies, some listing 10, 16 or even eighteen races (1, 2). Some are noticeably distinct forms – such as the African chaffinches with their green backs, and the Canary island chaffinches with their blue colours – whilst others may simply be rather similar local variants. A really excellent website, illustrating the distribution of ten Chaffinch subspecies – together with recordings of their songs – is provided by the Xeno-canto Foundation (3). These are all pictures of an Iberian Chaffinch, Fringilla coelebs balearica.

Chaffinch (Iberian) ( Fringilla coelebs balearica) male in Galicia
Chaffinch (Iberian) ( Fringilla coelebs balearica) male in Galicia

Chaffinches which breed in the Iberian peninsula are sometimes listed as a distinct subspecies, F. coelebs balearica, but other authorities consider them to be too similar to the so-called nominate form (F. c. coelebs) – which is found on across Eurasia (from western Europe to Siberia) – to warrant a separate subspecies (4, 5). The resident, breeding chaffinches in Spain apparently have shorter and more rounded wings that birds of the nominate species, which winter in large numbers on the Iberian peninsula (4). The situation is similar to that of the British Isles, where the local race (F. c. gengleri) is joined in winter by large numbers of immigrants from the continent (mainly Scandinavia) (6). In Spain, the foreign, over-wintering Chaffinches mainly come from Finland, Scandinavia, the Baltic States, Germany and Poland, but they have usually all departed for their northern breeding sites by March, or April, at the latest (4). So the chaffinches shown here – all photographed in Galicia, Spain in June – can be safely considered as residents of the balearica race. Like their cousins, the British and Irish Chaffinches, they are fairly sedentary, although those nesting on mountains come down to lower levels in winter (4).

Chaffinch (Iberian) ( Fringilla coelebs balearica) male in Galicia
Chaffinch (Iberian) ( Fringilla coelebs balearica) male in Galicia

According to Birdlife, the global chaffinch population is c.527,000,000-1,440,000,000 individuals (7), which must make it a contender for being one of the world’s most abundant birds? The population in Spain may be as high as 36 million birds, with another 1-5 million pairs living in Portugal (4). Whilst there is considerable migration of this species across Europe (and Eurasia), it is for the most part not a migrant which has to brave the hazards of flying to Africa. The exception being those chaffinches which migrate across the Straits of Gibraltar to Morocco.

Chaffinch (Iberian) ( Fringilla coelebs balearica) male in Galicia
Chaffinch (Iberian) ( Fringilla coelebs balearica) male in Galicia

So, this species can be thankful it does not have to brave all the hunters and trappers on islands like Malta and Cyprus (8, 9); and unlike some of its passerine cousins, it can avoid the slaughter that goes on in the Lebanon (10); and it does not have to negotiate the miles of nets being set in countries like Egypt to trap millions of migratory birds (11). And finally, it does not have to navigate the huge natural obstacle called the Sahara desert! Like many of us, it is lucky to live in Europe.

Chaffinch (Iberian) ( Fringilla coelebs balearica) in Galicia
Chaffinch (Iberian) ( Fringilla coelebs balearica) in Galicia




4. Eduardo de Juana & Ernest Garcia (2015).  The Birds of the Iberian Peninsula. Christopher Helm, London. ISBN Number: 978-1-40812-480-2

5. Collar, Nigel; Newton, Ian; Clement, Peter; Arkhipov, Vladimir. 2010 Family Fringillidae (Finches). In: del Hoyo, Josep; Elliott, Andrew; Christie, David A., (eds.) Handbook of the Birds of the World v.15. Lynx Edicions.

6. Wernham, Chris. “{The Migration Atlas: Movements of the Birds of Britain and Ireland}.” (2002).






rcannon992 View All

I am a retired entomologist with a background in quarantine pests and invasive invertebrates. I studied zoology at Imperial College (University of London) and did a PhD on the population dynamics of a cereal aphid (Metopolophium dirhodum) in the UK. I spent 5 years with the British Antarctic Survey studing cold hardiness of Antarctic invertebates and 17 years with the Food and Environment Research Agency. My main interests now are natural history, photography, painting and bird watching.

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