House Finches: The Hollywood – New York Connection

moldyandy_jmlandin

How could we have resisted spying on our new neighbors? Upon their arrival, they would sing by our windows and occasionally tap on the glass. Soon the couples expanded their families, turning each home into a mosh pit of hungry, but oddly cute, ragamuffins. At some point, we came up with nicknames for them (but more about those later).

Our new neighbors were house finches, and they had built nests inside two awnings. During the past few weeks, we had been checking in on them. Not only did the nests afford us the opportunity to intimately watch these birds give rise to a new generation, but we were able to further ponder how a species native to the western parts of North America, especially Mexico,1 had come to call North Carolina and the rest of the eastern United States home. Common today in all fifty states, this bird has a rather remarkable story.

From Tinseltown to Gotham

When Americans settled westward during the nineteenth century, they took a fancy to house finches. As many people today know, these birds love to build nests along human dwellings, which means that trapping them would have been relatively easy, likely resulting in part to their being sold as caged songbirds. Once captured, the creatures could be transported to other places—and indeed they often were. By the 1880s, American travelers had introduced house finches to the Hawaiian Islands.2, 3

In 1918, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act banned the human trafficking and sale of house finches. However, the practice continued for decades in the United States. The caged birds were even dubbed “Hollywood finches” by illegal bird traders so as to glamorize the species, making it more exotic and attractive to potential buyers. The “Hollywood” part of the name was a promotional gimmick, for the finches are native to the West Coast but also to other western states, not just Tinseltown and surrounding areas of California.4

As late as 1940, “Hollywood finches” were being sold in New York City. Increased enforcement, though, eventually ended the illegal sale of the birds—but with unintended consequences. Fearing visits by authorities, traders and pet shops ended up releasing their caged house finches into the wild. Eyewitness reports of the birds began circulating in New York City but quickly radiated out to neighboring states.5, 6 Today, house finches are found from northern Florida up to southern parts of Canada, but their rapid expansion has come at a cost.

“Moldies” and “Andies”

Our recent neighbors are likely descendants of those birds released in New York City over seventy-five years ago. In most cases, each clutch gave rise to four youngsters. Covered partially in spots of down, the new hatchlings were not much to look at. My wife jokingly likened their appearance to moldy strawberries. But these hungry creatures quickly grew, sprouting other feathers. By the time the fledglings left their nest, the only visible sign of their down was several unruly sprigs above their eyes, a characteristic reminiscent of the brow hair sported by the late 60 Minutes commentator Andy Rooney.

To differentiate the birds’ stages, my wife and I often made tongue-and-cheek references to them as “Moldies” and “Andies.” They grew up fast! In a matter of days, the Moldies became Andies. And, boy, did those ravenous bushy-eyed juveniles keep their parents busy. The last of them, though, took wing a couple days ago. For now, our spying eyes have returned to the bird feeders.

Sources:                                                                                                                                                  

  1. Mexico’s connection to the bird is reflected in the species’ scientific name, Haemorhous mexicanus.
  2. Hill, GE. A Red Bird in a Brown Bag: The Function and Evolution of Colorful Plumage in the House Finch. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. pp. 21, 224.
  3. Grinnel, J. “The Linnet of the Hawaiian Islands: A Problem in Speciation.” University of California publications in zoology. The University Press. Vol. 7, No. 4 (1911), pp. 179–195.
  4. Hill, GE. pp. 21, 221–222.
  5. Elliott, JJ, Arbib, RS. “Origin and Status of the House Finch in the Eastern United States,” The Auk. Vol. 70, No. 1 (Jan., 1953), pp. 31–37.
  6. Hill, GE. pp. 222–223.
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Staying Warm!

snowygoose

A winter storm struck our area recently, bringing a bit of snow and ice but not nearly as much as expected. The worst part was that for several days temperatures stayed below freezing. What fell stuck around, keeping most people inside. Yet the neighborhood squirrels and birds were undeterred from going about their usual business.

Carolina wrens, Carolina chickadees, northern cardinals, blue jays, and several species of sparrows were frequent guests at our backyard feeders. There were a few dark-eyed juncos, brown-headed nuthatches, and brown thrashers, too. During an outing, my wife spotted the usual Canada geese at a nearby pond. They all managed just fine, thanks in part to their feathers.

Cuddy’s Duck

Feathers serve many functions, one of the most important in cold environments is helping keep birds warm. And of the types of feathers on birds, the innermost layer (down) is critical for insulation. Much shorter than contour and flight feathers, down has flexibly stubby structures that stick together to trap air and shut in body heat.1, 2 People ages ago, in their struggles to adapt to extreme cold, figured out waterfowl are equipped with down that’s well suited for human use. Today, manufacturers of winter jackets and bedding products rely on down feathers primarily from ducks and geese.

Of all avifauna cherished for their down, the common eider duck remains the gold standard.3 In the United Kingdom, the species is sometimes referred to as “Cuddy’s duck,” in reference to St. Cuthbert, perhaps the first person to decree protections for birds.4 Legend holds that the seventh-century cleric of Great Britain’s Inner Farne Island developed a special bond with the eiders, forbidding the other monks to harm the nesting birds. While killing or eating Cuddy’s ducks would have been off limits, eiderdown “harvesting” could have been acceptable.5 Harvesting often involves collecting feathers from the nests while the birds are there, but the intent is to disturb the ducks as little as possible. In Scandinavian island communities, such practices had been going on for centuries prior to Cuthbert.6 They still continue today, with Iceland being the largest producer.7, 8

The Downside

Unlike harvesting, other methods are far from innocuous. China is the world’s largest provider of down, mostly from ducks and geese, which are raised then slaughtered for food.9 Though feathers are considered a by-product of poultry production, disturbing accounts of live-plucking have been reported.10 The negative publicity has forced the fashion industry to reevaluate its suppliers and offer synthetic options.11, 12

So what can we do to help out? Before purchasing a down jacket or bedding, investigate the manufacturers. As part of your Internet search, check whether they comply with the voluntary Responsible Down Standard (RDS). Note that the nonprofit Textile Exchange offers an online list of certified compliers and extensive information about the down industry.

The other choice, of course, is to just look for down alternatives.

Sources:

  1. Thompson, M. “Everything You Need to Know About Feathers – Feather Anatomy: How Do Feathers Work?” Bird Academy, Cornell Lab of Ornithology: https://academy.allaboutbirds.org/feathers-article/2/.
  2. Brakhage, D, St. James, E. “Waterfowl Feathers.” Ducks Unlimited: http://www.ducks.org/conservation/waterfowl-research-science/understanding-waterfowl-waterfowl-feathers.
  3. “Down and Feather Quality.” Downmark, Canada: http://downmark.com/consumer_information/down_feather_quality.htm.
  4. “St Cuthbert Provided Blueprint for Nature Conservation,” 6/30/2012. BBC: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-23048394.
  5. Jenkins, J. “St. Cuthbert’s Ducks,” 10/29/2015. Pilgrimage & England’s Cathedrals project: http://www.pilgrimageandcathedrals.ac.uk/blog/st-cuthbert%E2%80%99s-ducks-1446120484.
  6. “World Heritage and the Arctic,” United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO): http://whc.unesco.org/archive/websites/arctic2008/annex.html.
  7. Morris, J. “Iceland: Grail Trail,” 4/20/2002. The Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/iceland/724009/Iceland-Grail-trail.html.
  8. “Ask IR,” 1/30/2014. Iceland Review On Line: http://icelandreview.com/stuff/ask-ir/2011/11/10/can-you-tell-me-about-eiderdown-production-iceland?language=en.
  9. Schmitz, H. The Sustainable and Humane Practices of the Down and Feather Industry. International Down and Feather Bureau: http://www.idfb.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/IDFB_White_Paper_6.07.16.pdf.
  10. Gibson, K. “A Foul Truth behind the Down in Pillows and Comforters,” 5/26/2016. MoneyWatch, CBS: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/a-foul-truth-behind-the-down-in-pillows-and-comforters/.
  11. Milman, O. “‘Ethical down’: Is the Lining of Your Winter Coat Nothing but Fluff?” 1/14/2016. The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/14/winter-coat-ethically-produced-down-goose-feathers.
  12. Dobson, J. “The Growing Fashion Trend for Winter Travelers, Cruelty-Free, Vegan and Sustainable,” 12/19/2016. Forbes: http://www.forbes.com/sites/jimdobson/2016/12/19/the-growing-fashion-trend-for-winter-travelers-cruelty-free-vegan-and-fabulous/#6e9420a467cb.