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By Barbara Thompson

You may have heard of the red, amber and green lists of bird species - also known as ‘birds of conservation concern’.

246 species are assessed and placed on one of three lists – green, amber and red – indicating an increasing level of conservation concern. In 2009 the cuckoo joined other species like the grey partridge, house sparrow and turtle dove on the list of birds whose populations are in big trouble. Red is the highest conservation priority, with species needing urgent action. Amber is the next most critical group, followed by green.

So when you are gazing out of a window at the garden bird-feeders, with an early morning cup of coffee in hand, sleepily watching the daily round of blue tits and great tits pigging out on the nuts and greenfinches and coal tits squabbling over the sunflower seeds, it is quite startling to see a red list bird, large as life, eating breakfast along with them.

Large is the operative word. The hawfinch is a red fire engine of a bird, beautifully coloured in contrasting rust-red, black and white and with a massive bill. It’s 20 per cent larger than its little green goddess relative the greenfinch but it is also one of our shyest and most secretive woodland birds. Sadly it has a declining Cumbrian population, based in South Lakeland of only 30 breeding pairs. With a drop in distribution of over 40 per cent in Cumbria since the 1970s it is becoming a very rare red indeed and as in so many cases we are not sure why. Over all of England there may be only 3,000 pairs.

Like all creatures its body is specially adapted to fit a particular ecological niche and utilise the food within it. This is the only finch that has the strength to crack open cherry-stones and extract and eat the kernel. Its bill has specially strengthened pressure points and it has developed hulking head muscles attached to a thick bony ridge on the back of its skull to stop its bill from dislocating. Cracking open a cherry-stone apparently requires a force of 27-57 kg. (60–95lb) so don’t try to emulate them with your Grandma’s dentures. It feeds its tender-billed young on (well squashed?) caterpillars.

Like to see one? You are most likely to come across a hawfinch in some of the Cumbria Wildlife Trust’s southern nature reserves such as Grubbins Wood and Latterbarrow, but you will have to look hard as they are very secretive birds spending most of their time high in the canopy.  

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