House finch finds a home no matter where its travels take it
The uncertain rain had given way to a wet, giant-flaked snow that covered everything in a soggy white mantle. The holly and firethorn were heavy with a bounty of ripe, red berries that glistened against the picturesque ivory background. In the yard, juncos had replaced the regular summer fare of warblers and hummingbirds.
On nearby lakes and rivers, wintering ducks would be unimpressed with this modest storm. These birds have recently arrived from the Arctic and they know about truly harsh weather.
Over on the Eastern Shore, tens of thousands of Canada and snow geese were being joined by tundra swans on the marshes and stubble of now-fallow fields.
The changing cast of avian characters was as clear an indication of the changing season as the weather. This was the first day of winter, regardless of what the calendar said.
While millions of birds migrate annually, the Chesapeake's climate is hospitable for many year-round species, too. Because they change their behavior, some birds are less visible during the winter.
Robins, for example, are no longer fighting over mates and territories, spreading themselves out over the suburban and rural landscapes. Instead, they band together in flocks during the winter. The disparate worms of my yard are no longer the cornerstone of their diets. Instead, they have their hungry eyes focused on the holly tree and its clusters of inviting berries.
Similarly, the resident goldfinches visit feeders all year long. But without the eye-catching yellow they wear during the mating season, they'll blend in with the indistinguishable mass of LBJs-little brown jobs.
The house finch (Carpodacus mexicanus) is as common as its name suggests. Their breeding range extends from the entire southern tier of Canada down through Mexico. While the birds exhibit some modest migration during the winter, most don't appear to travel far from their summer homes when the weather changes. These are homebodies, just as advertised.
The house finch is about 6 inches from the tip of its stubby beak to the end of its relatively long, slightly forked tail.
Like all the other finches in its family, the house finch is dichromatic by gender-which means that males and females are distinguishable by differences in color. And like many songbirds, the male house finch is the one that sports the colorful plumage. ?He has a rosy breast with extensive red on his face as well. A brown cap and cheeks give way to a brown-and-white streaked back and wings. He has indistinct white wing bars.
Female house finches, like the one at my backyard feeder, are drab brown mixed with a blurry white. They are streaked on front and back.
House finches may produce two broods every year. The male starts the process by bringing sticks to the nest, but it is the female that does the construction.
While she is incubating the eggs and during the first days after their hatching, the male feeds his mate by regurgitating seeds into her mouth. She, in turn, uses the same method to feed the babies.
Both parents continue to supplement the diet of their youngsters for as long as a month after they have hatched. In the later stages, the female may leave the male with sole child-rearing responsibilities while she goes off and mates for a second time.
The short conical bills of finches make them ideal for grabbing seeds and cracking their tough exteriors. As a family, finches show extreme variability in the size, shape and strength of their bills, which are precisely evolved to exploit specific food niches.
Charles Darwin conducted close studies of the finches when he visited the Galapagos during his historic voyages aboard the HMS Beagle. He came to realize that the variations he was witnessing were perfect living examples of his seminal theory of natural selection.
Jonathan Weiner's wonderful book, "The Beak of the Finch," tells the entire fascinating story, including present day manifestations of the evolution of these species.
The lone female house finch at the backyard feeder seems indifferent to the change in seasons marked by today's first snowfall. I watch her and try to slow my harried pace. An endless stream of paperwork from my job threatens to bury me under reams of white.
The months float by like so many snowflakes, too numerous for me to count anymore. I want to slow the flow of my life. As the winter birds of the Chesapeake are showing me, there are innumerable ways to adapt to this changing world.
I think the first step is to put down my pen and pick up my binoculars. This common little bird may have something to show me about finding my niche in life.
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