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A Helping Hand for House Finches

Thursday, April 23, 2020


It started on the fifth of April,  with a typical rainy morning, when I looked out my bedroom window and saw this little fella with a big Fu Manchu of nesting material. I skibbled down the hall in my jams, did a two-wheel corner into the studio, grabbed the big camera, and thank God he was still a settin' there when I got back. 


First, you gotta love a guy who helps around the house. Second, my affection for house finches has grown over the years, as I've watched them decline pretty drastically from their mid 1980's explosion in New England, then all up and down the Eastern Seaboard.  They were frankly a huge pain, mobbing feeders by the score and tweeting incessantly. Loudly and incessantly.

Nature finds its balance, though. I've watched as they have been taken out by inbreeding depression, which means they have little resistance to disease. All eastern house finches descend from a release event at a NYC pet shop in 1939.
They were imported from California and sold as "Hollywood Linnets." Imagine. This is what the Migratory Bird Treaty Act disallowed! Let's hear it for that!  Being inbred and with little genetic diversity,  they've succumbed to Mycoplasma gallinae, a disease of domestic chickens that also strikes at least 30 other native songbirds to date. I'm so happy now when I see healthy house finches and I really do wish them the best. After all, they are native to North America--just not east of the Mississippi. Their song is among my favorites--so clear and vibrant, a tumbling cascade of beautiful notes.


I figured they were building, and it wasn't hard to figure out where. House finches like dense conifers close to houses. Duh?

And speaking of duh...Do you see their neatly woven nest?


With its precious cargo of four eggs of palest blue, ink-dotted with black?


Daddy's whiskers for a lining and a mourning dove tail feather for good measure. Ah, it's all too sweet--and too damned visible. Any blue jay worth its salt--and there are at least six around the yard this year hooray!!--is going to key in on that nest immediately, if not sooner. If I can find it so easily, what about a sharp-eyed jay or crow?


So I cut a thick branch off the bottom of the same spruce and stuffed it into the boughs over the nest, making a little awning to hide it from predatory eyes. 


Better. (Compare to first photo). 


You have to approach it from the side to see it. Jays flying over won't see it nearly so easily. At least that's the hope. 


And speaking of hope...they hatched April 21.


And here they are on Day 2, April 22. The weird yellow thing is the transparent crop of a baby which has its head down in the nest lining to the right. That's actually regurgitated seed fed to it by its parents, and it's completely normal for an infant house finch to look like that. I know it's hard to tell what you're looking at, but the lower chick has a downy head to the right and two sweet little arcs of downy wings on either side.

House finches were the most challenging of baby birds to paint for my book, Baby Birds: An Artist Looks Into the Nest because they have so darn much long grayish white down that their anatomy was totally obscured! But oh are they dear. Crossing my fingers for this nest, hoping the cold spring keeps the ratsnakes in their burrows, hoping the chipmunks won't brave the prickly spruce--just hoping for everything. Know the feeling?


8 comments:

I do, I do, I do know the feeling! Now I don't know whether to feel bereft or happy I don't have your list of predators to think about. No snakes, no chipmunks, just the standard #%$& cats and scrub jays. Dang those jays anyway. (My admiration for them has been of the grudgy sort ever since the great nuthatch baby fiasco.)

I hear you, Mother Protectress of All Things! Mr. and Ms. Robin have been building a nest in the lilac right outside my kitchen window, and I've been afeared about the blue jays homing in on it. It's low, like 4 ft' off the ground, and the lilac provides no cover! But maybe we can put something thick, like your spruce branch, over it to at least provide some protection vs. search teams of jays. Good luck with your downy babies; I'll let you know we fared.

I didn’t realize that I could help camouflage a nest. Thanks!

Oh how I share your angst about nesting season. I have a smaller version sort of going on here. A pair of Carolina chickadees decided to nest in a box on our patio. I was thrilled. After they got the nest about built the House Wrens returned for the season. The Male (?) house wren promptly ejected the chickadees and threw out all the nesting material. I was so disappointed. The Chickadees then moved to another house and made a lovely soft nest. The darned House Wren evicted them from there too. He threw out all the nesting material. I cried that time. While I love the House Wrens I hate this behavior. I know there is nothing I can do about it but it still makes me sad. I don't know where the Chickadees will go after two attempts in our garden. This is only the second time they have tried to nest in our garden. I was so hopeful.
We don't have marauding Jays but the Crows in the neighborhood are just as bad.
Good luck to your House Finches.

Birds are truly amazing. From that nest of pink skin and down will emerge fully-grown birds in a matter of months!

I just learned so much about House Finches from you, and they've been nesting in my front porch for probably 10 out of the last 15 years -- thank you! They always choose the far pillar that is well-protected, and dad keeps watch on the gutter outside. Five gorgeous eggs are up there right now with mom on top, so hoping for another successful season. They do poop up the place, though :-).

Best wishes on their success!

Love the house finch tale. I worry over every nest I find every season . Right now my fingers are crossed for cardinal babies in the honeysuckle on the back fence. Now fingers crossed for your house finches as well!

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