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 is a great friend of the forester, as it feeds largely on insects, bringing up its young almost entirely on an insect dietary, chiefly small caterpillars and aphides, and eats quantities of weed-seeds. To the farmer the chaffinch is both a friend and foe; the former on account of its destroying countless insect pests, and weed seeds, and the latter through its plucking up newly-sown seed and sprouting crops, particularly those of the Cruciferae, Compositae, and Gramineae orders of plants. Of Cruciferae, swede, turnip, thousand-headed cabbage or kale, kohl rabi, cabbage, rape, and mustard are the principal crops grown for stock; while of weeds are the famous charlock, shepherd's purse, cuckoo-flower, hedge mustard, wild radish, and penny cress or Mithridate mustard. Of Compositae, yarrow or milfoil (only used on light soils), and chicory represent farm crops; but of weeds there is the notorious dandelion, daisy, May-weed, hawkbit, hawkweed, sow thistles, corn marigold, groundsel, ox-eye daisy, prickly thistles, knapweed, stinking chamomile, beautiful cornflower, and burdock.
Of Gramineae, wheat, barley, oats, and rye represent farm crops grown mainly for the sake of their grain, and rye-grass, cocksfoot, foxtail, timothy, etc., are grown for their herbage, while of weeds the dread darnel, common bent, marsh bent, black bent or hungerweed, oatgrass, brome grasses, meadow barley grass, quaking grass, and Yorkshire fog. Balance in these three orders alone the evil the chaffinch commits against the good it must do in the matter of devouring the seeds. Of Caryophyllaceae the farmer only grows spurrey and that very rarely, of weeds he has to contend with the white and red campions, and catchflies, the stitchworts, the sandworts, and the ragged robin of hedges and fields; chickweed, and corncockle in arable land and cornfields, and the narrow-leaved mouse-ear chick-weed in pastures. Of Linaceae, flax is cultivated; purging flax is a weed of poor land. Of Leguminosae, beans, peas (certainly not eaten by chaffinch); white cow-grass, alsine, crimson trefoil, and suckling clovers; lucernes, sanfoin, and tares, with birdsfoot trefoil and kidney vetch on poor soils; furze, broom, rest-harrow, meadow vetchling, and a dozen species of wild vetch representing weeds.
Of Umbelliferae field crops are carrot, parsnip (not much used as cattle food), sheep's parsley; of weeds, hedge parsley, cow-parsnip, shepherd's needle (in cornfields), pignut (in pastures), and poisonous umbellifers, hemlock, fool's parsley (both land plants), water dropwort, water parsnip, and cowbane (a trio of water plants). Of Solanaceae, only potato is cultivated, while wild exist the foul-smelling henbane, bittersweet and deadly nightshade. Of Labiatae not any species are grown by agriculturists or only as weeds; white, and red deadnettles, hempnettle, bugle, and self-heal. Of Bo-raginecB, prickly comfrey is grown for fodder and silage, and as weeds common comfrey, corn gromwell, forget-me-nots, and scorpion-grasses. Of Chenopodiaceae, beets and mangel-wurzel are grown with various species of goosefoot as weeds. Of Polygonaceae, buckwheat is the only farm plant, unless sheep's sorrel be claimed; but docks and sorrels are common weeds of grass land, knot-grass and climbing bistort of cornfields and often occur on arable land. Of Urticaceae only the hop is a field crop, while stinging nettles are seen in every hedge and spreading therefrom.
Liliaceae has no field representative except as a market-garden farm crop, then onion and asparagus compete with the wild garlic in cornfields, and meadow saffron of the closely allied order Melanthaceae in meadows and pastures. Juncaceae, rushes; and Cyperaceae, sedges, have no feeding value. Papaveraceae, includes the poppy (species of which is occasionally grown for the "heads"), a persistent weed of cornfields. Ranunculaceae embraces the kingcup, crowsfoot, spearwort and marsh marigold, the pheasant's-eye of cornfields, and the wind-flower of the woods. Fumariaceae includes several species of fumitory, common weeds of arable land. Geraniaceae comprise about a dozen species of cranesbills or geraniums, two or three of which occur upon arable land and meadows, and their seed is sometimes introduced in impure samples of clover seed, and the meadow crane's-bill in pastures. Rubiacecae includes the hariff not uncommon in cornfields and plentiful in hedgerows, rabbits eating it greedily, and the knob-like bristly points adhering to clothes and sheep's fleeces, blue Sherardia or field madder common in cornfields, and on poor meadow and downland the yellow bedstraw or cheese rennet.
Convolvulaceae embraces the small bindweed, a troublesome pest of cornfields and potato beds, and the great bindweed, usually confined to hedges, clasps the fruit-farmer's bushes, while dodder entwines flax and clover. Scrophularineae is represented by toadflax, red bartsia in cornfields, yellow rattle in meadows, figwort in damp meadows beside ditches and is poisonous; eye-bright, lousewort and cow-wheat, mullein in hedgerows, and speedwells or bird's-eyes upon arable land and waste places. Orabanchaceae includes the broomrape which attacks clover. Primulaceae embraces the cowslip and primrose of grassy places and meadows, and the scarlet pimpernel of cornfields. Plantagineae claims the ribgrass or plantain, its seed often seen in samples of clover seed and its "bobtail" spike in seed given to cage birds, which, including chaffinch, are fond of the seed.
Fig. 105.- Effects of Non-Preventive and Preventive Treatment.
W, undressed Brassicas pulled up. X, dressed Brassicas untouched. Y, untreated lettuce. Z, treated lettuce. A, sprouting radish: w, untreated; x, treated.
Of all the weeds enumerated and their seeds broadcasted by natural agents that dispute the possession of the land with a growing crop, how many are destroyed in the seed by chaffinches? The flocks, making no distinction between males and females, that are said to harm newly-sown seed and sprouting field crops. Certainly chaffinches eat corn badly covered, and seed or springing up plants of cabbage and turnip, but surely the birds can be prevented from taking either seed corn or sprouting plants by the simple process of red leading before sowing, as we have practised for over half a century and found effective against all the finch family. The effects of the process or otherwise (Fig. 105) will be suggested.
In fruit gardens and orchards we have not known the chaffinch to do any harm, but much good by clearing trees of small caterpillars, aphides on apple, cherry, plum, damson, and other fruit trees, chiefly in breeding time. It is said to be very fond of ladybirds and their larvae, but we have noticed both left on aphid pasturage after the chaffinches have been at work, and not many aphides. Further, it is stated to be a great disbudder of gooseberries, currants and plums, which we have never seen, and further found in twos and threes all over a fruit plantation after frost eating the buds, while later on " squeezing " the blossoms of plums, cherries, gooseberries and currants, to extract the honey in them. Where the honey comes from but the honey tubes of aphides, it is difficult to determine, and for what reason the squeezing; but surely the birds must have been bullfinches, not chaffinches, in company with house-sparrows taking the buds. It is also said to eat beechnuts and beech seedlings, seeds of Scots pine and other conifers, truly, according to report of Mr. W. E. Collinge and Mr. F. Smith, as given in a paper read at the Fourth Ordinary Meeting of the Society of Arts on Wednesday, December 12, 1906, not worthy of protection in respect of farm crops and fruit plantations.
In the garden we have never known the chaffinch interfere with any crop other than those of the Cruciferae (cabbage tribe), and Compositae (lettuce, salsify, etc.), and these are effectively safeguarded by coating the seed with red lead before sowing. The seed is simply moistened with water in small quantities in a flower pot as advised for peas and beans, brushing up with a soft painter's sash brush so as to make the seed evenly damp all through, and then sprinkle on the red lead and again brush up the seed so as to coat it thoroughly with the red lead. Seed of all brassicas, radishes and other Cruciferae, also lettuces, salsify and other Compositae, so treated before sowing are never taken by the chaffinch or other finches. On a large scale the seed, grain included, may be first thoroughly wetted with gas-tar water, boiling ½ lb. of gas-tar in 2 gallons of water for half an hour, or until it will readily mix with water, and then diluting to 50 gallons, and while damp sprinkle on the red lead and move about so as to coat the seed or grain. This is effective against all newly-sown or sprouting seed-devouring pests, including the famous rook and wood-pigeon, also pheasant and partridge, and obnoxious to ground insects and parasitic fungi.
As the quantity of tar water is excessive for most requirements, a proportionate quantity may be prepared, even as little as I oz. gas-tar to a pint of water, boiling for half an hour or until readily mixing with water and then diluting to 6¼ gallons. Gas-tar water is a good preventive of insect eggs' deposition, particularly those of sawflies, and dipterous pests, and also useful as an insecticide and fungicide.