The hawfinch's Latin name is now given as Coccothraustes coccothraustes, the name meaning 'kernel-breaker'; in the family Fringillidae. They are a shy and elusive bird, preferring dense tree foliage, and not having any easily identifiable song (they use a high-pitched 'tick'). Bird-watchers find it difficult to record them. They can more readily be identified by the cracking sound of kernels: their beaks enable them to exert huge pressures, so they live on seeds and nuts that other birds disregard. They like damson, hornbeam, sloe, and cherry.

A recently-published report by the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) shows a precipitous decline in their numbers in England in the last twenty or so years, though they are still common on the Continent. One possible cause is competition from the grey squirrel.

Their body is a pinkish brown, and rather stocky, and they have black and white wings.

There is a classic book The Hawfinch by Guy Mountford, published in 1957.

A related species is the masked hawfinch, Coccothraustes personatus.