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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.


I have seen several goldfinch still being fed by parents. Did you get your little waif to eat?

Am I right they're the last to hatch due to late seeds of thistle?

Julie, I am so glad your heart is your guiding star. Lucky for that little goldfinch, too!

Fyi humans indeed do have a vestigial coracoid. The most anterior bony prominence of our scapula is aptly named Coracoid Process. The superior transverse scapular ligament originates here – from the base of the coracoid and inserts to the medial portion of the suprascapular notch.
Great essay. Thanks so much for sharing!

@Renee Frederick, yep. She ate. She had to!

@Sara Sheets, yep, goldfinches and indigo buntings are among the latest nesters, joined by cedar waxwings, because the bounty of ripe weed seeds (and fruit for waxwings) in late summer and early autumn helps them raise their young.

@Idrea Thank you! So we have one, but it's vestigial, reduced to a process. Does that mean we can surmise that humans once flew? ;)

Every critter that crosses paths with you is as lucky as can be. If this goldfinch has any hope at all, it will be realized in your sweet care.

Will look for updates RE this little beauty!!!

Wouldn't be surprised if your meadow-owning friends (perhaps not all the time, but much of the time) do not regard their efforts required in maintaining this beautiful open vista as toil, but rather as not so very different from the expressive work of an artist in her studio ... the rolling hills here their canvas and the bush-hog just one of their brushes - trying to create a little more beauty in this world (at the same time the gas company folk are destroying it).

We had a lesser Goldfinch juvenile sitting on a tree limb with his dad in the snow here on 10/9/17 in Monument CO. Just how late do they nest????? Plenty of food & water for them @ our house but still.....

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