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Reflecting on the finches

Musings from the Hill

I am blessed with birds that have color even in the drabbest days of mid-winter.

The cardinal is a regular, if not steady, visitor. On these bleak days, even the female adds a joy of color. The red-bellied woodpecker is also becoming more familiar at my backyard feeder. Always the male, I get a kick out of that flaming crimson topknot.

Spring (and, on occasion, winter) days bring the robin. But let’s face it, that breast is a pretty muted orangey red. Besides, all I generally see is the gray back – or the stark white of its tail when he quickly vamooses.

That’s just as true for the one brooding on the front porch before April is finished. In previous years she’s scolded me each time I walk out the door, usually only to carry compost to its box. This years she’s quiet. Does she finally understand I’m no threat? Do my heartfelt apologies reach that birdbrain? (I’m surprised to see Molly remembers the nest and its activity from last year. She’s already standing and staring up. It can’t be too, too much longer before I can join her on the front porch again.)

Late April brought another returning straggler, one I’d know anywhere because it’s a bird of a very different color: the Purple (indeed!) Finch. His spouse might fit in better here with the sparrows (song, chipping, white-throated) though, actually, it isn’t hard to find her for the other three have their own quite obvious marks of identification. Sorry, sweety, you just don’t have much though, in my eyes, that has beauty all its own. Different, in whatever way, still stands out.

If you need a description, I’m turning to “Stokes Field Guide to Birds.” “6.” MALE: Upperparts, breast and flanks raspberry red (brightest in summer); head uniformly covered with red; little or no brown streaking on breast or flanks. FEMALE: Well-defined pattern on face of broad white eyebrow, brown eyeline, and white cheek; broad, blurry, brown streaking underneath; no streaking on undertail coverts. Immature male and female like adult female.” I find “raspberry-red common” but prefer National Geographic’s’ “the male looks like a large-billed sparrow that has been dipped in red wine.”

“During the courtship ritual,” to continue, “sometimes the male sings with such enthusiasm he rises into the air, as if borne on his own swelling song. If the female responds, he alights and they may touch beaks.

“One observer saw a male pick up a straw, perform an ecstatic dance, then roll over as if dead. The female roused him with a peck and flew off with the straw to start a nest.”

Audubon calls the bird “widespread and common.” Sibley, for some reason calls the Purple Finch uncommon but has fun with their melodies. Their song is a slightly hoarse, lively warble “plidi tididi reeete plidi tititi preeer” with their call a short whistled “tweeyoo.”

I’m sure I’ve never Googled a bird. I have a shelf full of reference books. Still, this time I did and up popped finches as pets. I have never had a pet bird, nor would I want one. I can enjoy their beauty (and antics) and song while they live free beyond my windows.

It reminded me though of an intimate friend who, traveling regularly between Europe and the United States, would bring back finches to be sold as pets. He was very young then and obviously saw nothing wrong with it.

His astute knowledge of all things birds was amazing, opening many wonderful doors for me. Once he saved an eggbound bird struggling to survive but that’s another story. As I recall he also identified a new finch that was named after him. Now I turn to his daughter with my questions.

That said, finches are apparently very desirable as pets. Average lifespan is five to nine years and they cost approximately $55 – $150 each. They need a large cage at least 24x14x18. They don’t care about toys but love mirrors and swings. They are favored for their talking and singing abilities (which are loud). They love children and, if given treats, will do about anything to entertain you. Just be sure you (or a pro) keep their nails cut and their home clean.

Interested? Go for it. Mine can live outside.

Susan Crossett has lived in Arkwright for more than 20 years. A lifetime of writing led to these columns as well as two novels. “Her Reason for Being” was published in 2008 with “Love in Three Acts” following in 2014. Both novels are now available at Lakewood’s Off the Beaten Path bookstore. Information on all the Musings, her books and the author may be found at Susancrossett.com.

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