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Though I found these Chaffinches (Fringilla coelebs) in a woodland setting in Cosmeston Lakes Country Park, they are equally at home in urban gardens, as long as there are trees around. Mr Chaffinch’s multi-hued plumage is particularly dapper, and is the reason why the expression ‘as gay as a chaffinch’ was used for a well-dressed and vivacious person, in the days before ‘gay’ acquired a rather different meaning. I think Mrs Chaffinch looks every inch the stylish tweed-wearing countrywoman as well.

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Chaffinches are prolific singers, so much so that Brits used to hold contests to determine which bird could sing best and longest. The Avicultural Magazine of 1896 (vol.2, pp.115-17) has a wonderful story about the contest between ‘Shoreditch Bobby’ of Bricklane and the ‘Kingsland Roarer’, organised by the landlord of the ‘Cock and Bottle’ pub in London and, though it makes for a rather long post, I have reproduced most of the article here for those who, as I do, love a good story:

In the parlour all the gas-jets are lighted, but have some trouble to penetrate the fumes of tobacco, beer, etc. At last the contesting parties enter, each dressed in his Sunday best. …The two markers take their places, and as the clock strikes the two cages are uncovered and hung up. The battlers look around for a moment, shake their plumage, whet their beaks and one may take a grain of seed, but before it is cracked he hears a familiar sound uttered by his opponent. Immediately he replies by a full strophe of his song, to which the other answers with fuller power. Before each marker is already a stroke of his chalk, and now the combat is fairly ‘started’. The chalks are busily employed to mark each properly delivered strophe, and keep pace with each other for a time, until ‘Bobby’ takes it into his head to betake himself to the food trough.

Meanwhile, the ‘Roarer’ continues steadily to pour out his heart, and gains considerably in chalk marks. ‘Costermonger Joe’ is getting very uneasy and cannot understand this ‘trick’ of his much-renowned bird. Never before did he think of food while in the presence of an opponent. In order to draw his bird’s attention upon himself and from the food trough, he moves uneasily in his seat and ventures at last to cough aloud.

It must be understood, that while a match is proceeding no words of encouragement are allowed; no whistling or other means may be resorted to, to recall a truant to his duty. Fair play is rigorously enforced. Coughing cannot be stopped.

At last, Joe can stand it no longer: accidentally his beer glass gets knocked over and falls on the floor with much clatter. Bobby peers across the room to ascertain the cause of the unusual disturbance and catches sight of his master, and immediately he resumes his battle-cry. The ruse has succeeded, although there is a tumbler to pay for.

The chalk marks on the tables are getting very numerous. The Roarer has challenged without a fault for thirteen minutes and is forty points ahead of Bobby, but now he feels rather ‘dry’. He stops working, takes a drink of water and hops to the food box. But ‘Kingsland Bill’ does not give his bird time to lose ground by feeding like the other. In a moment he whips out the brightly-coloured handkerchief the Roarer knows so well, and pretends to wipe the perspiration from his anxious brow. His finch takes the hint, and gallops through the remaining two minutes of the appointed fifteen in grand style. Bobby also had tried hard to make up for the precious time he had lost so wantonly, but could not recover all of it. Although credited with 212 marks, the Roarer beat him by 28 strokes.

Immediately protest is entered by Costermonger Joe, fair play having been violated by the use of the coloured cloth. Bill retorts by calling into question the fairness of the beer glass episode. One word leads to another, the spectators mingle in the strife, expressions of opinion and sympathy with either party are getting more and more select, and battle of another kind seems imminent. Joseph declares he has won, but William insists on ‘fighting’ him for the stakes. This mode of settling the question being declined by Joe, the landlord is called upon to exercise his functions of umpire. With characteristic disinterestedness he declares the whole match null and void, and orders a fresh match to be sung for the same stakes that day week and on the same spot.

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