My passion for North African fauna never ends. One of those matters I have been studying in last years is about the identification of real African Chaffinch from unusual oddly plumaged European Chaffinch. This beautiful taxon, really a jewel of the African land, is variously treated as a subspecies of Fringilla coelebs, or as a separate species Fringilla spodyogenys (Collinson, 2001). In recent years, a wide and not yet ended debate over the occurrence of “African Chaffinch” taxa in Europe, has seen a number of papers on several bird magazines dealing with that matter and with the identification criteria (Van den Berg & The Sound Approach, 2005; Oreel, 2004; Mullarney, 2006; Jonker, et al. 2008). Some of the very last one, concluded either that the Great Britain’s records could not be accepted behind any reasonable doubt, for the possibility of aberrantly plumaged European birds (Mullarney, 2006) or as opposite that, in the Netherlands for example, the observations (or at least some of them) could be proven and accepted, mostly supported by the differences in calls recorded, considered to be typical and distinctive (Jonker, et al. 2008).
A paper by van den Berg & the Sound Approach (2005), has a photo gallery of both the ssp. africana from Morocco and Northern Tunisia and the ssp. spodiogenys from Central and South Tunisia, with description of their identification. However, I am surprised that none of those extensive articles deal with the tail pattern. I am visiting regularly Tunisia (once-twice a year) since 1999 as well as Morocco since 2004 and therefore I have the opportunity to study closely and extensively both nominate spodiogenys and the western taxon africana. Since my first observations, I was struck by the unique appearance of the tail, indeed I noticed that the tail pattern it’s a very helpful and typical character always successfully used, once seen well, to identify all the “Chaffinches” seen in North Africa.
Field observations have been later confirmed and corroborated by skins studies, in several European museums (Roma, Wien, Milano, Torino, Palermo, Catania, Malmo etc.) but mainly in the British Museum, at Tring where several tens skins were studied in detail (2008-2010). As shown and well-illustrated by the photos here reported, both male and female “African Chaffinch” show a much wider white area on the three outer most rectrices (tail feathers T6-T4 or R6-R4 according to authors), while “European Chaffinch” always show darker T6-4, with visibly limited white portion on T6-5 and a fully dark T4 or just tipped white.
This difference in pattern is also visible in the field, mainly when the birds take flight, with African showing an almost half white tail and European showing just a white sided tail. I always found this distinctive difference very useful in the field, in mixed flocks seen in winter in Tunisia.
Also the call, is indeed a very helpful and distinctive character as reported in literature. In regard to concerns over the liklihood of occurrence in Europe, I would like to report some interesting observations done in Tunisia: in fact, in three different occasion in February (1) and March (2), I have seen flocks of European Chaffinch living Cap Bon and Korba going north, and into this flocks there was a male African Chaffinch, probably having joined the flock during winter season, being catch on or even having mated with a female European, therefore following the flock once leaving leading north. This is known for several species and called abmigration, easily making possible the arrival of African Chaffinches in Europe in spring. It has also been noticed in recent years that some singing males spodiogeyis and couple of females has been found on the highest forest of the island of Pantelleria, Sicilian Channel, Sicily, in April-May, probably having arrived there during winter or early Spring (Corso, et al. 2012).
Best thanks goes of course to all the curators of the museums visited, mostly Katrina Cook and Nigel Cleere for help and assistance during my visits to the British Museum at Tring.