RICHARD WILLIAMSON A beguilingly bullish beauty

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I photographed the cock bullfinch out of the kitchen window today. My tiny digital did its best to stop the wings, but all you see is a blur that would have made the medieval angel carvers who placed their work high in the ceiling of Blythburgh church in Suffolk smile condescendingly.

Cromwell’s troops fired at the wings with their muskets and the holes are still there and they are still much better than what I can achieve with this flying angel in my garden. Never mind, pretend it is a humming bird.

But what on earth was it up to? I was attracted to the movement while idly staring at the frying pan bird bath where a chiffchaff and a female blackcap warbler were having a quarrel over drinking times.

Suddenly the bullfinch popped out of the shrubbery and became a helicopter. After several arm wrestling attempts with the breeze, he succeeded in plucking a tiny seed from the herb bennets.

I encourage these wild flowers, much to my wife’s distaste. She can’t stand the hooked seeds grappling her little pink ankle socks and she says the tiny yellow petals are not worth the trouble.

Years ago I had to present a paper to the BTO conference in Derbyshire and I wrote all about the way weed seeds feed birds in winter. I had often watchd bullfinches feeding in deep snow on Kingley Vale on the seeds of wood sage which were on tall enough stems to stand well above the glacial weathers of the 1980s.

They left the thistle seed for the goldfinches but they even had a taste for the oily capsules of marjoram and many grasses.

Bullfinches have declined right away from the 190,000 pairs thought to breed in Britain 30 years ago. The new Bird Atlas of British Breeding Birds so keenly awaited will show a decline. But why?

I hope it is not just that the bullfinch is known as the bird that ‘is present everywhere but never seen’. Often all you know of its presence is a tired old squeak like a rusty wheel on a cart whose axles have not been oiled. Like the great tit’s bicycle pump noise, you get to know it even though the bird is never in view.

I had a pair of bullfinches nesting in the old apple trees in my garden, but I hardly ever saw them. Then all at once there were two broods of eight birds commandeering the bird bath frying pan. I am glad I was justified in keeping all the Geum urbanum plants. Get some for yourself, plant them up and then look out for the angels with the white bottoms.

All you have to do is go for a walk along most of my 52 Favourite West Sussex Walks book walks in your little pink ankle socks and you’ll have enough seed to satisfy any number of angels next season.

The Roundheads would have shot them, I expect, but today we should try everything to get them back if they really have declined as much as birders suspect.