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.

Look but Don’t Touch: Watching out for Nesting Birds

nest_JMLandin

Look but don’t touch. This was a lesson I learned early on as a young boy, staring intently along with my grandmother at a bird nest. Inside a shrub-like tree, a bowl of straw lay almost hidden. Within it, several nestlings, their mouths wide open, were awaiting their next meal.

After a quick look, we hurried away, soon noticing that the mother robin returned with sustenance for her young. Folklore, of course, advises people to not harm bird nests, for doing so was commonly thought to bring bad luck (1). However, for many children, superstitious appeals are not necessary, as a simple reverence for nature may be more persuasive. Why disturb a nest? Instead, by just watching, all people, no matter their age or occupation, can spend days learning about the behavior of our winged neighbors.

A Few Famous Nest Watchers

Such appreciation is expressed eloquently in the beginning of Walt Whitman’s poem “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”, which notes his frequent engagement afar with a pair of nesting mockingbirds: “… every day I, a curious boy, never too close, never disturbing them, / Cautiously peering, absorbing, translating.” (2)  The perils of nature may have eventually laid claim to one of the birds, but the poet’s powerful connection to them, especially the surviving bird, is undeniable.

As a few literary examples demonstrate, birds do sometimes choose risky locations for their nesting spots. Robert Frost’s poem “The Exposed Nest” relates an amazing find within a freshly cut hayfield—a nest of young birds somehow surviving untouched by a passing blade (3). In John Clare’s “The Pettichap’s Nest”, a narrator marvels at a warbler’s eggs precariously placed by a well-traveled horse-and-wagon road. “Yet,” he remarks in the poem, “like a miracle, in Safety’s lap / They still abide unhurt, and out of sight,” housed in a nest “Built like an oven.” (4)

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Emperor’s Bird’s-Nest” presents perhaps what may be the worst place imaginable for most birds—the outskirts of a battlefield. However, in this poem, the 16th-century Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, while planning a military campaign, decides to protect a swallow nesting on the ruler’s makeshift dwelling. Even when his army finally packs up its belongings, the tent is ordered to remain, “Loosely flapping, torn and tattered, / Till the brood was fledged and flown.” (5)

Birdhouses and Backyard Birding

People, having an affinity towards nesting birds, usually desire to offer some form of protection to the winged caregivers and their offspring. This is a big reason for the introduction and success of birdhouses. We enjoy watching and hearing bluebirds, cardinals, chickadees, finches, wrens, and many other of our feathered friends. In fact, it’s not uncommon for folks to have several nest boxes set up near their home, a practice commonly referred to today as “backyard birding.”

The use of human-made birdhouses actually goes back at least five centuries to parts of Europe, Asia, and North America. These structures were often, and still are, freestanding entities placed near human residences. They’re typically constructed out of wood, but materials over time have varied, including clay, gourds, and, most recently, concrete (6). Designs tend to be simple and box-like for housing one bird nest. Ornate assortments also exist, consisting of decorative models with multiple nesting compartments made to resemble castles, palaces, ships, and other elaborate abodes.

Not all birdhouses are built as isolated units. Enclosures for nesting birds are sometimes constructed as part of a building’s façade. The country of Turkey, especially the city of Istanbul, is renowned for such architectural structures (7). Of course, several kinds of common birds are notorious throughout the world for nesting in parts of human dwellings not intended as “birdhouses.” Pigeons display a fondness for ledges, for instance, while certain swifts like to use chimneys.

Some Quick Guides for Getting Started

Birds generally don’t require fancy amenities, but they do need a dry, well-ventilated space that’s just the right size for a particular species’ entry and residence. Using the interactive tools on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s NestWatch’s site, you can quickly determine which types of birds, based on region and habitat, are found in your area. Out of those, think about which ones you’d like to attract.

Also, to help you offer a safe, sturdy, and accommodating home for your avian guests, an illustrated guide with tips and information on birdhouses is available, as are step-by-step instructions on the proper way to install a camera within a nest box and monitor nesting activity.

Teachers can even download a NestWatch lesson plan packet for their students. Course information includes how to identify local birds by their song and type of nest, guidelines and legal requirements for observing nests, and methods for collecting and reporting data.

With the lesson plan packets and latest technology, you can look all you want. But still, no touching.

Happy watching!

Note: This post first appeared a few weeks ago on the Your Wild Life science website.

Sources:

  1. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable, and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1923. 8, 114, 115.
  2. Whitman, W. “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”, Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/178710.
  3. Frost, R. “The Exposed Nest”, Mountain Interval. New York: Henry Holt, 1920. New York: Bartleby.com, 1999: http://www.bartleby.com/119/21.html.
  4. Clare, J. “The Pettichap’s Nest”, John Clare Info pages: http://www.johnclare.info/sanada/4Rm2.htm#PETTICHAPS.
  5. Longfellow, H. W. “The Emperor’s Bird’s-Nest”. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, A Maine Historical Society Web Site: http://www.hwlongfellow.org/poems_poem.php?pid=134.
  6. Cranmer, T. “Nesting Cavities and the History of the Birdhouse”, Cranmer Earth Design: http://www.earthdesign.ca/bihi.html.
  7. “Bird Houses in Turkey”, Turkish Cultural Foundation: http://www.turkishculture.org/architecture/bird-houses-104.htm.