Bullfinch, Azores

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Bullfinch, Azores

Pyrrhula murina

phylum: Chordata

class: Aves

order: Passeriformes

family: Fringillidae

status: Endangered, IUCN Endangered, ESA

range: Azores, Portugal

Description and biology

The Azores (pronounced uh-ZOAR-ays) bullfinch, known locally as "piolo" (pronounced pee-OH-low) is the only endemic (native to, and occurring only in one place) land bird on the Azores archipelago, a group of nine islands plus some small islets in the North Atlantic Ocean about 800 miles (1,290 kilometers) off the coast of Portugal. The Azores bullfinch is in many ways like the common bullfinch that lives on the European continent. The mainland bullfinch, however, has a bright red breast and gray back set off by a coal-black head, while the Azores bullfinch is dull in its coloring. Unlike the mainland birds, male and female Azores bullfinches are nearly identical in color. They can be identified by white bars on their wing. They are small in size, at about 6.25 inches (16 centimeters) long. Male Azores bullfinches are larger than females.

The Azores bullfinch lives in the laurel (a kind of evergreen tree) forests of the Azores. The bird's diet consists mainly of seeds. It eats seeds of herbal plants in summer, seeds of fruits in the fall, and seeds of trees and ferns in the winter. In the spring it eats flower buds. Because of this variety in its diet, the Azores bullfinch needs a good supply of specific plants in its area.

Azores bullfinches live in inaccessible (difficult to get to) forests and wildlife biologists (scientists who study living organisms) do not know a lot about their habits.

Habitat and current distribution

The Azores bullfinch can be found in dense Azores laurel forests. Within the Azores archipelago, the bird is limited to a fairly small area in the Pico da Varda area of eastern São Miguel, consisting of the Pico da Varda and Pico Verde mountains and the Ribeira do Guilherme valley. This area is virtually impenetrable (not possible to enter) for humans. There are about 120 male-female pairs of Azores bullfinches in existence today.

History and conservation measures

In the nineteenth century, there was an abundance of Azores bullfinches. Farmers viewed them as pests in their orchards and killed them whenever possible. The Azores government joined in the effort to eliminate the birds in order to help the farmers with their crops, and actually paid rewards to local citizens who brought in bird beaks to prove they had killed the bullfinches. The campaign to get rid of the birds was highly successful. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the Azores bullfinch had become quite rare.

For the few remaining Azores bullfinches, the introduction of foreign plants has caused another decline in population. The new plants have invaded the forests and overwhelmed the native plants. This forces the Azores bullfinches into smaller and smaller areas where the native vegetation they eat and live in still exists.

In 1995, a local forestry program funded by the European Union was established to restore and expand laurel forests in the Azores in an effort to increase the population of the Azores bullfinch. A laurel forest on the slopes around the Pico da Vara summit was designated a natural forest reserve.