Saturday, September 22, 2012

First Flight of the Humble House Finch

House finch nestlings  growing rapidly and waiting for more food.
The house finches won the battle of the porch again this summer. Last summer, I was delighted with the unobstructed view when we pulled down the old, sagging screen porch and replaced it with a new floor and open sides. Then the house finches discovered the porch with a view. They decided to try nesting there. "Oh, no, no", I told them, "Try the other 899 acres."

The head of the female house finch is finely streaked with brown but does not have a whitish eyebrow or moustache as the similar purple finch.
I objected because I didn't want bird poop on the clean laundry I hang on the porch's retractable clothesline. Also, since I often don't get around to pulling clothes off the line until nighttime, I didn't want to flush the birds and have them unable to make their way back to their nest in the dark. Can diurnal birds even see in the dark?

Five eggs on July 4th, 2012. This is the second clutch of the summer in this nest.
So the battle began. Every morning I would patrol the open porch and pull down the few messy strands of the male's practice nest. I even put a frog statue in his favorite corner, but the finch just piled grass stems on top of it. I thought he would eventually move on. After about two weeks of this, I got busy and forgot to check the porch for 3 days. Suddenly there was a complete nest with a drab gray bird sitting on it, a female house finch I presumed. Once there were eggs present, I abandoned my nest deterrent maneuvers and switched to curious onlooker.

Just a few days old, this nestling has patches of fluffy natal down on its head. Note empty clothesline.
A few times I forgot about my new house-finch-mates and went out on the porch at night which scared the brooding parent off the nest.  Each time, the female was there on the eggs the next morning. Before I knew it, summer 2011 ended and the noisy nestlings were gone. As I cleaned up their messy poop-plastered nest, I was determined they would not return the next year.

Hungry nestlings on left on June 18. Same nestlings on right with their first body plumage by 6/24. Photo on right taken with mirror held over the nest.
Maybe it is their name, it is HOUSE finch after all, but I was likewise unsuccessful in discouraging the fecund finches this summer. Actually there were three finch nests on my porch in 2012. One pair built a nest in the middle of the porch in early May, and then just as that batch fledged, they started a second clutch in the same nest at the same time another pair built a nest on the far end of the porch near the coiled-up wire. One day, there were two sets of hungry nestlings, plus the original fledglings following the parents back to the nest in the hopes of snagging handouts. I noticed the female finch just ignored the fledgings as she hurriedly stuffed the beaks of the new nestlings.

Porch with view.
I reluctantly admitted to a co-worker that all the bird ruckus on the porch this summer kept me and the cats entertained. From my writing room, I look directly out onto the porch and its gorgeous view of the Peter's Creek canyon beyond. On a day of writer's block, I rigged up a camera on a tripod with a remote trigger to record the finch activities. The photos in this post are actually from both 2011 and 2012 but I arranged them so you can see the general progression of the nestlings.

Feeding grass seeds to house finch nestlings.
I wondered what the nestlings ate. I had it generally fixed in my mind that baby land birds are fed insects to fuel their rapid growth. While watching an ash-throated flycatcher nest in the old buckeye tree out another window of my writing room, I noticed those parents carrying mostly caterpillars, spiders and insects into the nest cavity. By enlarging the finch photos, however, it looked like those parents were regurgitating grass seeds. I didn't quite believe it until I checked The Birder's Handbook which describes the diet of the house finch as "Consumes virtually no insects; feeds nestlings almost entirely on seeds."

The male house finch has a red, orange or even yellowish wash on its head, breast and rump but no colorful tint on its back as has the "purple" finch (which is often a darker red or maroon but not really purple). I try to look right behind the eye - if there is a brown patch between the red there, it is probably a house finch. If the red is continuous from the top of the head, behind the eye and onto the throat, it is a purple finch. 
And I found an explanation of why the nests seemed to change shape. The house finch parents only clean the kids' droppings out of the nest for the first few days. Thereafter, the young birds poop over the side of the nest which results in the nest becoming plastered with droppings (Davis and Baldridge, 1980).

It's getting crowded in here!
On a hot day, I stayed inside writing and got to see the first flight of one of the finches. All morning long the five finch nestlings had been fussing and pushing and climbing all over each other. Their ruckus broke one side of the nest and it crashed to the porch floor. There was a lot of wing stretching going on.

If this nest was in a tree, the brave nestling to the left would be doing his tap dance on a branch.
One finch hopped out of the nest onto the adjacent ledge under the porch's roof. That finch walked up and down on the ledge, flapped its wings and did a little tap dance. It hopped back into the nest, and then repeated its ledge tap dance several times. After a few rounds of this, it suddenly stretched it wings, stepped off the ledge and puff, flew off.

Nestlings trying out their wings.
The remaining 4 nestlings squawked about this for quite awhile. When I peeked at dusk, there were still four finches in the nest, and the same the next morning. I did not get to check again until that evening when I found the nest completely empty, except for sagging walls of poop.

The first nestling takes off.
A friend has been going through great turmoil in her life, unexpected change and upheaval. Every night I share a photo of the finch nestlings to soften her next 11 hours of darkness. I am trying to fight heartbreak with little chirps of life, change and survival. I am not sure if the beating wings give her comfort or if I'm just being crazy.

The natural world frequently surprises me with its healing power. Is it possible to absorb these raw experiences and leach them out as a balm? If I could just find the right thing to say and so become a medicine woman of words.

How and when do we say "I love you" to a person when love has so many shapes and meanings like clouds? When do you look a person in the eyes and say "I love you" with the most sincere intentions and not lead to misunderstanding? Is it love of the lust form or love of family bond and decades-long friendship or love because you momentarily connect with their human vulnerability or courage? More and more these seem like the same thing to me but first I have to get beyond the gritty responses to that word.

I am confident that before the end of the short life of these newly fledged house finches, my friend will feel better, but I will still be learning the right words for the nest time and the next time and so on. Where are the writers, naturalists, and artists with whom I can apprentice as a medicine woman of words?

When you are ready, step out on the ledge. Do a tap dance, beat your wings, and jump.

Pajarito, espero que tu nueva casa sea cerca.

Stepping out is always an act of courage.
See also:

House finch, Carpodacus mexicanus
Purple finch, Carpodacus purpureus

The Birder's Handbook: A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds. Paul R. Ehrlich, David S. Dobkin and Darryl Wheye. Simon & Schuster, New York, 1988.

The Bird Year: A Book for Birders with Special Reference to the Monterey Bay Area. John Davis and Alan Baldridge. The Boxwood Press, Pacific Grove, CA, 1980.

The Stokes Field Guide to Birds of North America. Donald and Lillian Stokes. Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2010.


  1. The sweetness of your words gave me true tears, which are, for me, the most healing stuff around, ad also the hardest to come by.

  2. Ps, I'm going to print this, frame it, and hang it up in my new casita, dondequiera que sea.

  3. Lovely post.

    As for nests, it could be worse. Every year, I get blue jays on my porch.

  4. A very well woven story, Cindy. Hmmm... makes me wonder - perhaps the finches had chosen you - not the house. ;)


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