Background Switcher (Hidden)

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. 

Goldfinch in a Turtleneck

Saturday, October 7, 2017

I thought about how to wrap the goldfinch's hurt wing. I needed something that wouldn't stick to her feathers, but that would stay on her. I thought and thought. Finally I came up with an idea I thought might work. 

I'd take a finger off one of my little running gloves, the cheap kind I buy on the grocery store rack when I lose the last pair I bought. I'd cut a hole in it for her good wing, work that one out of the slit so she could use it to balance, and keep the bad right wing folded up inside the tube. It'd be like a sleeveless shirt, but with one wing kept inside.

Here's the wrap, with a hole cut for her good wing.

It was pretty easy to slip it on over her head. Then I worked her good wing out of the slit I'd cut. 
Such a good, placid little bird, just lying there, letting me do this ridiculous stuff to her.

She didn't need the turtleneck, so I cut that away.

She couldn't stand or perch because the wrap came down too far on her legs, so in the photo below I'm  cutting a sort of notch or delta out of it to give her little legs full freedom of motion. The beauty of the idea is that the good wing, coming as it did out of the little slit I'd cut, would keep the wrap in place, keep the bad wing folded at her side until the coracoid could heal. Or so I hoped. 

Based on how docile she'd been, I hoped that she wouldn't be inclined to mess too much with the wrap, which was likely more comfortable than the usual wrap.

The way she held her feet together, as if she were praying for a good outcome, melted my heart. 

I've had a lot of experience with goldfinch behavior and cognition this summer. It has to do with the Secret Studio Feeder I established for Jemima. Tufted titmice came in and stole all Jemima's pecans and chicken, so I bought them off with a bowl of sunflower hearts. Goldfinches brought their babies and parked there, eating. And lots of them came into the house through the crank-out window into the studio, because I keep the screen out for Jemima photography. I swear the same goldfinches came in day after day and had to be hand-caught and released. Didn't I just catch you yesterday, sir?

 Goldfinches may not be the sharpest tools in the shed, but they are among the sweetest. 

Next: What She Did.

Goldfinch Down!

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

I was away giving a talk to some master gardeners in Hocking County, Ohio, September 9 and 10. My gosh, that's nearly a month ago. It's all flown so fast. Probably a good thing.  I had the great privilege of staying overnight with my friends Jen and John at their gorgeous country retreat in the famed Hocking Hills of Ohio. How lucky can you get?

I got a nice dogfix from their Australian shepherds Winston and Jake, who were so happy to hike with us. They respond to voice commands. It has been so long since I've been around a dog who can hear, that this seemed like an extravagant luxury to me--calling a dog. Not having to run up to him and tap him on the shoulder so he'd look at you and have to guess what you were trying to tell him. It made me think of the old days, when a quiet word was all it took to bring Chet to my side. Heavy sigh.

I gazed for a long time out at their gorgeous meadow. In my appreciation was a keen sense of how much work it is to have and maintain a meadow like this. A view like this is a privilege, an obligation, and a hell of a lot of work. I just love the serpentine path John and Jen cut through it, inviting the eye and the boots to traverse it. And as someone with land to tend, who lacks the requisite heavy equipment skills to keep it open, I see it with a far more appraising eye than I would were I not in this situation. I look at this view and am awestruck. This view is about beauty, yes, but it also speaks of great vigilance and dedication. Those meadows don't stay open by themselves. It's a pitched battle between woody vegetation and the brush hog. Relax for a few months or a year, and the vegetation wins every time.

Too soon, my little escape ended, and I headed home. On the morning of September 10, I was filling the feeders when a wee bird fluttered out from under my feet. It was a goldfinch, and it was completely grounded, reduced to hopping around under the feeders, scrounging for its existence.

Uh-oh. Here I go again, thinking about entering a pact with an injured bird, one with unknown consequences for us both. I knew one thing: if I did nothing and "let nature take its course," as the wildlife officer likes to say, this baby goldfinch would end up in a chipmunk's burrow, being carved up like a Thanksgiving turkey. If I did something, its chances for survival improved dramatically. If what I did didn't work, and the bird wasn't releasable, well, I guess I'd deal with that on down the road. Maybe somebody would take it on. But who? That's the fine print I have to read on any such contract with a broken wild thing.

I mentally shuffled through the weeks ahead. When was my next big trip? Well, I had the Ohio Pawpaw festival in a week, but that was a day trip. I'd be speaking and showing my work at the American Birding Expo in Philadelphia ( Sept. 29-Oct. 1. My brain does a pirouette when I stand back to observe a hurt bird. All those things twirl around in there and then my brain spits out a ticket that says "Do it." And I lean down and close my hand around the bird, and our fates are intermingled from that moment on. And as I looked at the still-black bill of the bird, it hit me that it was probably still being fed by its parents. Oh, Lord. Please, please be able to pick up your own food. I can't force-feed a finch, can't get that slippery little conical bill open if you won't open it yourself. Ack!! What was I thinking?? Welp, too late to worry about that. I've entered the pact.

I picked up the little creature as easily as I'd pluck a candy wrapper out of the grass. I took her inside and held her by the window, stretching her wings out, looking for breaks and bruises. I could find nothing. She could move her wings in a normal way if she had to, but she could get no lift. She'd flutter through the grass, but couldn't get any altitude. All I could conclude was that she had a broken coracoid. This break, of a bone that's embedded in the pectoral muscle, can really only be guessed at, not seen on examination, but it will ground the bird as surely as a broken humerus will. It most frequently occurs in windowstrikes. I had little doubt this poor bird had hit one of our unprotected windows.

From, here is a photo of a fulmar's pectoral assemblage. They're a lot heavier than the bones of a goldfinch, but the structure is the same.  You'll recognize the furcula as the V-shaped "wishbone." The coracoid is #2, running from the shoulder girdle down to the great big blade-shaped breastbone #1 (sternum). The coracoid serves as a strut for those big pectoral muscles that power flight and are anchored on the sternum, or keel, as it's often called. Mammals don't have coracoids, so calling it a "collarbone" is descriptive, but not really apt. You can see, looking at this structure, that if there's a break in the coracoid, the whole system of flapping breaks down, because the supporting strut has broken. Everything's moving around in there, and the bird can't get any power to its wings. Ow. Gotta hurt, too.

1. Sternum / breastbone
2. Coracoid
3. Clavicles / furcula
4. Scapula
5. Joint with the wing
6. Foramen trioceum
Coracoid: #2. That's probably what's broken here--the supporting strut for the wing. 

The good thing about a broken coracoid is that, given time, it can heal on its own. Like, two weeks' time. The coracoid is basically supported by surrounding muscles, so it's not flopping around loose. It can heal and the bird can regain flight functionality. But the bird needs a couple weeks' worth of rest in a small cage, and it needs to be in a quiet situation where it isn't tempted to flutter a lot.

All this I simply have to deduce, based on how the bird's acting and moving. It's an inexact science. Jumping in the car and driving a goldfinch 2.5 hours to the Ohio Wildlife Center and back kills a day, and it simply ain't gonna happen in my busy life. Down here in the most wildlife-rich counties in Ohio, where there's an immense need for wildlife rehabilitators, there are no rehab facilities, no veterinary backup. There are no options other than to take the hurt thing to Columbus, or to try to help it yourself. Anyone who opened a clinic down here in the southeast corner of Ohio would be swamped with patients from Day One.

 People around here care greatly for our wildlife--the constant phone calls I get attest to that. But the income base that could support such a facility through generous donations simply doesn't exist. See, the pile of money generated through oil and gas drilling doesn't stay here, and for the most part it isn't pumped back into the community. You in the big white trucks, we've invited you in.  We've fallen all over ourselves to take your bribe to drill our land. Bring in your tankers, your haulers, your rigs. Take our oil, take the money and run. All of you truckers come on. You drive too fast, smack down the middle of our little country roads and you run over some more of our wildlife while you're at it. Please, if you could be so generous, swerve back into your lane for just a second, and let my son in his little green Subaru make it to school, and home.

Hmm. It must be the growl of heavy equipment, floating in the window well before light, that inspired that last paragraph. There's heavy logging going on down in the holler, and I don't want to know what comes after that.

Her right wing doesn't look so good here, I know. She spent a lot of time resting it on the perch, which was exactly what she needed to do.  But I was willing to keep her in the studio for a couple of weeks, in the hope that one day she might fly again. And my brain was working, figuring out a way to perhaps help the healing process. Next: Goldfinch in a Turtleneck.

[Back to Top]