This section is from the book "The Balance Of Nature And Modern Conditions Of Cultivation", by George Abbey. Also available from Amazon: The Balance Of Nature And Modern Conditions Of Cultivation.
This bird has not one redeeming feature save its appearance in the estimation of the fruit-grower, for the devastation caused after Christmas on the swelling buds of fruit-bushes and trees until the buds expand into leaves. The worst time is February and March according to locality. It usually commences with the gooseberries, red and white currants, not black, as a rule, and follows on with plums, notably greengage and all the gages, early Rivers, black diamond, and prune damson, indeed all plums and damsons, cherries, particularly "May Duke," sometimes in autumn or early winter, apples, notably "Councellor," and medlars, attention being also given to pears and sometimes black currants. The bullfinch also attacks the buds of the sloe and bullace, birdcherry, hawthorn, larch and beech in their order of swelling, and for about six months lives almost entirely on fruit buds. It also takes some ripe raspberries, blackberries, hips and haws, privet and rowanberries, chiefly for the seeds.
As "set-offs" against the bullfinch depredations in gardens, fruit-plantations and orchards, six months' feeding on various weed-seeds, such as chickweed and groundsel in flower-bud, sow-thistle, plantain, dock, ragwort, thistle, nettle, and knapweed, have to be considered, and also insect-food of the young bullfinches. On the question of utility in these respects the valuation by fruit-growers is that many seeds of weeds pass through birds undigested, and these seeds are distributed by the birds, while in the matter of insects forming the chief support of the young of the bullfinch, it is contended that they are fed on seeds softened by their parents and in forgetfulness of the latter not " softening " weed-seeds for their own use.
The bullfinch is somewhat local in distribution and most plentiful near woods protected by game preservers, where it multiplies in safety, and this accounts for its comparative abundance and even increase in certain districts. During late summer, autumn, and early winter, bullfinches rove about in families of five or six. At these times they may easily be caught in a trap-cage (Fig. 111), with a "call bird." Captured in this way, the plumage of the birds assures for them a ready sale, particularly as they are easily tamed, taught to pipe, and even to articulate words. Accomplished in these respects, they are sold at high prices, as much as £4 or £5 being demanded for a single bird.
After the birds pair the call-bird of the trap-cage has little allurement on any bullfinch but the unmated. At this time, a pair only do immense mischief in a garden, fruit plantation and orchard, practically rendering the bushes and trees fruitless through taking the buds. The birds may be secured by means of birdlime, which is made either from holly-bark or from boiled oil.
Holly-bark birdlime is "usually prepared by boiling holly bark ten or twelve hours, and when the green bark is separated from the other, it is covered up for a fortnight in a moist place, then pounded into a rough paste, and washed in a running stream till no motes appear. It is next put up to ferment for four or five days, and repeatedly skimmed. To prepare it for use, a third part of nut-oil or thin grease must be incorporated with it over the fire" (Encyclopaedia Britannica).
Linseed oil birdlime is prepared by placing linseed oil in an old pot or vessel that will stand the fire without breaking, and not more than one-third full. Place it over a slow fire and stir it until it thickens as much as required, which is ascertained by cooling the stick in water and trying if it will stick to the fingers. When sufficiently boiled, pour into cold water and it will be found ready for use. About four hours of slowly boiling are required for the oil to become sufficiently tenacious for use.
When birdlime is about to be applied or used, it should be made hot, and the rods or twigs should be warmed a little before they are dipped in it. In order to prevent birdlime from being congealed by cold, it should be mixed with a little oil of petroleum. The common kind of bird-lime must be melted over the fire with a third part of nut-oil or any thin grease, if that has not been added in the preparation.
Fig. 111. - Thomas & Co.'s Double Cage Trap.
In lining for bullfinches without a call-bird, the main branch of any bushy tree, with long, straight and smooth twigs, such as the birch and willow, should be cleared from all the useless spray; then lime the branches to within four fingers of the bottom, leaving the stem from which the branches spring untouched, and then place the bush where the birds resort, and so as to be above the bushes of gooseberries if placed there to capture the depredators on the buds.
For taking the smaller kinds of birds other than bullfinches and other bud-destroyers during frost and snow, when all sorts of birds assemble in flocks, birdlime may be used in various ways; the linseed oil prepared birdlime should be put into an earthen vessel with one-fourth of its weight of fresh lard, and the whole melted gently over the fire. A quantity of wheat-ears with about a foot of the straw attached being cut, proceed to lime the stems about 6 in. in extent from the bottom of the ears, and stick the limed straws into the ground on a train of chaff and threshed ears over ten or more yards length, with the ears inclining downwards or even touching the surface. A person traversing the adjoining places will make them fly towards the train, and finding " meat " will soon commence picking at the ears of corn and become so entangled and held by the limed straw as to be easily taken with the hand. In the case of out-lying corn-stacks, limed twigs, as advised for bullfinches, may be stuck in hedges near-by, or in a train of chaff and thrashed ears of corn on the ground, sparrows and other corn-eating birds being thus easily captured.
Even on allotments, small holdings and farmers' cornfields, sparrows and such-like depredators may be greatly restricted by bushy trees limed as described and stuck in the ground or affixed to poles so as to be just above the corn where the depredations are being carried on, or at the points whence the attacks are usually made. A preparation to use for this purpose, also against bull-finches, is a mixture of resin and sweet oil, two-thirds of the former melted, and one-third of the latter. Even of this consistency, the birds getting it on their legs and wings are greatly prevented from further devastation; while made stronger by using less oil in the preparation, they are " stuck fast," or so besmeared as not to give more trouble.
Limewash, made from quick stone-lime with water to a consistency easily applied by means of a syringe when strained, is an effectual means of preventing bullfinches taking the buds of fruit-bushes and trees. It must be applied in good time, thoroughly coating the whole of the bushes and trees, and only made from quicklime, otherwise it will not adhere to the buds, using as soon as prepared. This may be repeated if necessary, and besides preventing the buds from being taken, will free the bushes and trees of overgrowths of lichen and moss, hibernating pests, and profit the plants when fallen off and mingled with the soil.
Taylor's dressing as a preventive of birds taking fruit-buds: "Take a quarter-peck of quite fresh quicklime, choosing the lightest lumps, a pint of flowers of sulphur, and 1½ lbs. of soft soap. Dip a few of the lumps in or sprinkle with water (hot water is the quickest in action) and place in a bucket or other vessel; sprinkle a little of the sulphur thinly over it, then add more lime, just damp enough to slake; then add more sulphur on the top of it, repeating this process till all the sulphur is used. The quantity of lime used is not important so long as there is sufficient to dissolve the sulphur, which gives a dark colour to the lime. The soft soap should be dissolved separately, and afterwards mixed with the lime and sulphur, and sufficient water added to make 3 gallons in all. If the mixture is not thick enough to apply with a brush more lime may be added, or if the glaring colour be objected to, mix soot with it. Caution must be had in dissolving the sulphur, not doing it in a house containing plants in a growing state, as the gas emitted will burn up every leaf just as completely as if fire had been used. The mixture is applied by means of a brush, well coating all the parts of the bush or tree, taking care that the buds are not injured or dislocated.
It may also be dashed amongst bushes with a whitewash brush, or made thin enough to be passed through a syringe. Birds will not touch buds that are well coated with the mixture, and no amount of rain will wash it off if it be applied in dry weather, but this is contingent on its being prepared with quicklime, for if lime is used that has been some time exposed to the air, the sulphur will not properly dissolve, and the first shower will wash it off."