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22 December 2017

Feathered guests from the east: Helen Macdonald’s winter reflection

Hawfinches are legendarily mysterious, secretive and difficult to find, writes the author of H Is for Hawk.

By Helen Macdonald

This autumn, there has been an unprecedented invasion from Europe. It has been reported in the national press and has set internet message boards on fire. People have left their homes expressly to search for the immigrants and some have set up microphones to detect their calls at night. Between mid-October and mid-November, 50 passed through Greenwich Park in London and more than 150 were seen at one location in East Sussex on 12 November. They’ve come to Britain because of food shortages in their countries of origin, and there’s a general hope among those who look for them that they’ll find what they need here, settle in and stay.

The new arrivals are hawfinches. If you’ve never seen one, imagine a chaffinch on steroids, painted soft salmon pink, black, white, russet and grey. Their enormous, cherry-stone-cracking beak resembles a pair of side-cutting steel pliers and is quite capable of severing a human finger. With coppery eyes set in an ink-black bib and mask, their overall appearance always reminds me of an exquisitely dressed pugilist. They are rare and declining in Britain –  around 800 pairs breed here – and I saw my first on a winter’s evening in the late 1990s while driving through the Forest of Dean in a rainstorm at dusk. As I rounded a corner, a single bird flew up from the verge, caught in my headlights, its pied wings strobed through bright lines of falling water before it disappeared back into the dark.

The encounter was every bit as ghostly and strange as the species’ reputation among British birdwatchers. Hawfinches are legendarily mysterious, secretive and difficult to find. Local populations frequently disappear completely for a number of years before reappearing in their old haunts for no obvious reason. They are most often detected by their call: a short, metallic, emphatic szick! And while they’re easier to locate after the leaves have fallen, they are so skittish that most of my sightings have been tiny silhouettes set on the topmost branches of distant winter trees.

Things are very different in Europe, where hawfinches are far from shy and elusive. Some years ago, walking through Berlin’s Volkspark Friedrichshain on a cold spring day with a friend who lived in the city, I stopped in frank astonishment under a cock hawfinch singing on a lime twig a few feet above my head. “It’s a hawfinch!” I breathed. “Yes, there’s loads of them here, all over the place,” she said, casually, and shrugged. I waved my hands in frustration as the bird continued to sing. Faced with this absurdly tame finch, as much at home in the city as a house sparrow or pigeon, I could find no way to explain to her how enigmatic hawfinches were supposed to be.

The recent influx to Britain is likely to have been spurred by hornbeam crop failures in Europe, though some attribute it to unusual weather. One British Trust for Ornithology spokesman suggested that warm air pulled north-west by Storm Ophelia brought the hawfinches here. Whatever the cause, this unprecedented irruption of avian refugees fascinates me partly because it speaks so obviously of current issues – it’s a truism that birds know no political borders – but also because it reminds me of how closely human concerns inform our understanding of nature.

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British hawfinches today live mostly in ancient woodlands such as the Forest of Dean or in small colonies in the forests and parklands of stately homes: I once heard a birder call them “National Trust finches”. In my imagination, so closely are hawfinches tied to these symbolic British landscapes that for years I presumed that they were the last remnants of a native, much-decreased ancient population whose present-day rarity was a function of modernity. My mind was blown when I found out that Britain had no breeding hawfinches until around 1830, when a number of prospecting pairs from Europe started a nesting colony in Epping Forest. From there they spread until by 1900 there were birds in almost every English county, taking advantage of apple orchards and leafy deciduous woodlands full of food sources: hornbeam, beech, maple, elm, hawthorn and cherry. British populations reached their peak in the 1950s, after which they went into a precipitous decline.

The history of hawfinches in Britain has taught me how seamlessly we confuse natural and national history. It reminds me of how readily we assume nativeness in things that are familiar to us and how lamentably easy it is to forget that we are all from somewhere else. One factor in the decline of British hawfinches is the loss of suitable habitats, but another is nest predation by grey squirrels, creatures we think of as unwanted foreign invaders. Ironically, they appeared in the British landscape at about the same time as hawfinches.

Perhaps the immigrants will stay and raise their young here. That’s what we hope. But what is most joyous to me about this once-in-a-lifetime influx is that birds renowned for their attachments to ancient woods and country estates are turning up in unexpectedly everyday places. They’re clambering about yew branches in local churchyards and foraging in the leaf litter of suburban gardens. In late November, eight were spotted at Mill Hill Sports Centre in north-west London. “At last!” wrote Sue Barnecutt Smith in a comment to a Times article about the invasion. “I couldn’t work out the identity of a bird my son spotted at my allotment last week (near Putney Bridge, west London). Now we know.” It might be too much to expect these incomers to augment the British breeding population, but their presence is heart-lifting all the same. This winter, people all over the country will be watching something beautiful and strange: the hawfinch newly democratised.

“H Is for Hawk” by Helen Macdonald is published by Vintage

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This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special