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Release the Goldfinch!

Monday, October 16, 2017


In the two weeks I had the young goldfinch in my studio, she was rarely quiet. She twittered through the day. One of her frequent vocalizations I couldn't recall having heard in the wild. It's the lower-pitched zraayzee call, given a number of times in this video. It's much louder and more emphatic than most of her twitters and twerps.

After hearing it from her, I heard a juvenile give it once, in the yard near the feeders. My guess is that it's a high-intensity contact call. If the bee bee bee twitters are "Hi. Hello. I'm here," zraayzee might be "HEY. HEEEEYYY. WHERE IS EVERYBODY?"

You can see in the video how she's holding her right wing. This pose must give some relief to the healing coracoid and the bruised muscles around it. When I'd see her sit like this, I'd think, "Oh no. I hope I'm not stuck with a goldfinch for the next twelve years." Having had an orchard oriole and a Savannah sparrow each make it to 17 1/2, and a house finch to 9 1/2 years, I know well what a commitment that is.

But we were both on a leap of faith here, and I told myself she'd be OK. There was nothing wrong with her wing--it was just the coracoid strut that needed to knit. (If you need explanation, go back three posts). She'd be able to fly. Well, I hoped so.

When a bird in rehab starts zooming around the cage, making it from the floor to the topmost perch without even trying, it's time for a flight test. I thought about setting up the nylon tent in the garage, but I was afraid I wouldn't be able to catch her if the wing had healed well. I'll never forget setting it up for the eastern wood-pewee I had on two week's rest for the same injury. And then that pewee zoomed around the tent so blindingly fast I had to catch him in flight with well-timed swing of a koi net!! Not. Good. This is the dilemma I face, not having proper facilities. Heck, even at Ohio Wildlife Center, they've been known to flight-test birds  in a long windowless corridor with a rehabber or two at either end. Whatever works. Had I known what was about to happen, I'd have used the back hall.

It can be awkward getting a bird to leave its cage. In this case, since the exit holes were at the bottom, I had to turn the cage over on its side, then coax the bird to leave this unnatural fortress. Goldfinches, as previously noted, are not wrens. They are not the sharpest tools in the shed where spatial relationships are concerned.

When she finally burst from the cage, I was in for a surprise!!

Circling the ceiling 20x = RELEASABLE. I couldn't believe her good luck, my good luck. It was too good to be true!

I'd learned something about a broken coracoid.

1. Given time and cage rest, it will probably heal.
2. If you can't get a wrap to stay on the bird, you might not need it anyway.
3. Flight test it somewhere it can't hurt itself (small windowless room or long narrow hallway)
4. Plan for the best, i.e., not being able to catch the dang bird when you flight test it.

I could not catch that bird, no matter how I tried. It was stressful for both of us. Finally, I had to remove the screen, crank the window wide, and shoo her out.

She didn't go far. She landed in the branches of a small American hornbeam bonsai that lives on a bench just outside the window.  There, she decided to eat salad. While I watched helplessly, she removed all the buds from two of its few branches. I was torn between laughing and crying. When that part of my tree fails to leaf out next spring, I'll remember this moment.

Mmm. Salad. 

Next year's hornbeam leaves, gone to goldfinch fodder.  Watching her denude my poor bonsai did make me realize that there is food everywhere for a vegetarian goldfinch. Maybe that's why they don't need to be all that sharp. No prey to outwit. 

Go on. Find your big world. The dome feeder's hanging out there, full of sunflower hearts. All your friends are in the yard, your parents, too!

Finally she flew into the golden arbor vitae and stayed there in the comforting shade for awhile.

A couple of hours later I saw a young goldfinch with a slight droop to the right wing land on the Bird Spa. After two weeks of living with her, there was something distinctly familiar about this bird.

Two days later I came out the front door and one young female goldfinch barely looked up from foraging. She flew to the arbor vitae, but no farther. Bright eyed, not sick. Just unafraid of her studio companion.  

Rehab doesn't always work out, that's for sure. But when it does, it is very sweet. 

The Flower Destroyers

Thursday, October 12, 2017

  Have your zinnias lost their petals on the bedpost overnight? Have you been finding puddles of brightly colored sepals and denuded heads, still gaily ringed with the bright yellow “true flowers” in the center? I sure have. Experience has taught me who dun it.

You have a guilty look on your face, sir.

                                Wut. I’m just a goldfinch, perched decoratively on a flower.

I’ll just, ehm, go up in here and do my…thing…

He pulls on the bright red sepal. The seed remains in the flower head. Oops. Ideally, the seed comes out, still attached.

He takes it in his toes, finds it empty of food, 

holds it for a precious moment (click!) and lets it drop.  The red petal is an exclamation mark on my excitement at capturing him red-billed!

Though the shady north side of my house isn’t perfect for zinnia growing (they’re full sun plants), I couldn’t resist planting one where I could enjoy it from the studio. I’ll draft a zinnia to suffer through the shade every year now, if I can just photograph this scene again!

While we're on goldfinches, you may have noticed that this early autumn male is looking a bit dingy, soiled. His feathers are worn, and the olive feathers of winter are showing through.

Look closely at this photo. Can you tell the parents from their two babies?  Two of these things are not like the others. Two of these things are not the same.

It's all in the wingbars. Newly fledged goldfinches (like my patient) have bright wingbars, tinged with cinnamon, and cinnamon-touched  edges on their secondary wing feathers. The badly worn adults have lost all the white trim on their secondary coverts (wingbars) and remiges (flight feathers). So in the photo above, from left to right, it goes Mom (no wingbars), Baby 1, Dad (no wingbars),  Baby 2.

The incessant peeping of young goldfinches continues in my yard well into October, as these late-breeding birds finally bring off their fledglings. Why, they're peeping today, October 12! Goldfinches are among our latest breeders, waiting for weed seeds to come ripe before building their nests. Even though feeders fill in the gap, the age-old commandments of nature rule their days, pushing breeding into September. When the baby goldfinches finally stop peeping for food, winter is well on its way.

We'll check back in on our injured goldfinch in the next post.

Don't Dress Up a Goldfinch

Monday, October 9, 2017

When I first put the goldfinch with the broken coracoid in her small recovery cage, I had a couple of jar lids on its floor. One had a mix of thistle, millet, cracked corn, black oil sunflower, and hulled sunflower chips. The other had water. I went back to my work and kept my ears cocked for the sound of a finch cracking seeds. I prayed this juvenile goldfinch would be developmentally ready to pick up her own food. This would greatly improve her chances of healing. Imagine if I had to catch her and force-feed her several times daily. The damage that broken coracoid could sustain if she fluttered and tried to escape each time I reached in the cage could queer the whole healing process. The big problem with rehabilitating finches is that tiny, slippery, conical beak. Combined with her strong, seed-cracking masseter muscles, a conical beak is real trouble for a rehabber. First, because of those strong jaw muscles, if she wants to keep that beak closed, it’s by God staying closed. Second, its shape and the slippery ramphotheca makes it all but impossible to pry open. You can’t get purchase on a conical beak, and she certainly wouldn’t trust me enough to open her bill for me to feed her. So if she was still being fed by her parents at the time of her window collision (which she almost certainly was), and she was as yet unable pick up any of her own food, we were in a real pickle.

 Finally I heard her hop down to the cage floor and saw her pecking at her food. Oh, thank the Lord. She was na├»ve, though, and still didn’t know how to process anything other than hulled sunflower chips. That’s OK. A diet of straight sunflower chips wouldn’t hurt her for two weeks. Big exhale.

Cutting legroom out of the wrap.

 I spent a lot of time thinking about the hurt goldfinch and coming up with her cool little glove-finger wrap. She spent a lot of time thinking about it, too. Then she spent a lot of time doing something about it.  From the moment I put her back in her cage, she was working to undo my neat little fix. She started at the turtleneck and worked, worked, worked at the yarn.  She barely stopped to eat. She’d grab a sunflower chip and go back to work, unraveling my awesome comfy wrap. She never ordered a wrap! She was sending it back.

Thinking back, I should have expected this. This is not a warbler, who picks insects off the undersides of leaves. This is a finch, who tears plant material apart to get at the seeds. She’s got mad mechanical skills. Goldfinches rip into prickly grass and thistle heads, digging until they find the seed. Shredding a soft woolen wrap was nothing for her. By the end of the first day, she’d shredded it so well that it she got her feet tangled in it, too, and she was immobilized on the cage floor. Oh well. All of you who praised my ingenuity, now please laugh with me. 

Goldfinch, you’re on your own here. I’ll keep you as quiet as I can, and you can rest and heal without intervention. 

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