Sunday, February 22, 2015

Finches in Frenzy: Teachable Moments

Goldfinches, purple finches, house finches, pine siskins and dark-eyes juncos find nyjer seeds magnetic. These bite-size morsels pack a punch with their high oil content. Hang a small feeder filled with these seeds in the backyard and you will never experience a dull moment as the wild songbirds alight on it from nearby trees and put on a breathtaking display of avian acrobatics.

It becomes clear after a while that the pine siskins are the feisty ones, thrusting their beaks at the goldfinches and purple finches to hog the seeds. The polite cousins put up with the bullying for a minute or two and then fight back, or at least, pretend to. That seems to be enough. A kind of a uneasy democracy settles in as the birds take turn feeding, flying away to rest on the nearby trees to catch their breath (and poop), and flying back again to begin the cycle.

The goldfinches win the beauty contest hands down. The flash of their yellow brightens up any gray, cloudy day. They keep clear of the siskins as much as possible and use their acrobatic skills to get at the nyjer seeds, often hanging upside down to avoid invading the siskins’ space.

The dark-eyed juncos are content to walk the ground beneath the feeder, avoiding any possibility of a skirmish with the other birds. Plenty of seeds fall from the feeder, enough to feast on. You can see them pause to look up, almost as if pitying the feisty ones for their foolishness.

Feeding frenzy reaches its climax when it’s raining. The joy of the songbirds is palpable. They seem to be filled with a mysterious energy as they flutter, swerve and hover, their jostling increasingly dramatically for the privilege of a peck or two at the seeds. Leaves tremble as water drips from the trees and squirrels frolic in the fresh green grass but it’s the raucous songbirds that own the world as they dart back and forth from nests to seeds in their ruffled, rain-soaked plumage through air translucent with raindrops.

College campuses teem with birdlife. Jays, sparrows, robins, juncos, finches, swallows, buntings, bushtits, bluebirds, towhees, red-winged blackbirds, doves, warblers, hummingbirds and many other kinds enrich campuses in their ineffable ways, offering teachable moments to students as they hurry between classes or meet up with tutors and friends.

These moments are unfortunately rarely recognized. Birds connect us to the natural world in ways unmatched by other species. We become keen observers ourselves by observing them. These symbols of freedom tune us to the rhythm of the seasons. As they swoop and hover and descend from trees like autumn leaves, they kindle our sense of wonder and remind us that there is more to life than jobs and commerce.

So when you take a walk in that familiar campus, observe the junco as it seems to appear from nowhere in front of you to stroll the ground and acknowledge its fleeting grace. Pause for a moment to follow the movement of the towhee as it searches for worms beneath the sprawling oak and marvel at its dexterity. Whatever you do, don’t go around campus with blank faces plugged into ear buds. Open your eyes and ears. When from that evergreen pear tree emanates the trill of a red-winged blackbird, ask yourself, have you heard any song as lyrical?

The joy that birds communicate can perhaps translate to joy of learning. A sensitive soul can even conjure life’s meaning from birds. Whatever one’s disposition, taking the time to reflect on the beauty of birds can help any life take wing.

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