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The human touch. April 28, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood decided to keep a few tube feeders up all year here at Hawk’s Haven this year so we could enjoy watching the goldfinches in their brilliant yellow fair-weather plumage. Usually, by the time they moult from their drab winter plumage into their courtship plumage, we’ve put away the feeders for the year and only catch the occasional glimpse of them dancing over our cultivated wild meadow at the back of the property. We’ve kept up the two feeders outside the home office window, so we can look up from the keyboard for some visual refreshment, and the feeder outside the deck door, since our kitchen table is there and we often sit out on the deck. (Besides, it provides some extra entertainment for the parrots!)

Needless to say, our friend Ben has been enjoying the antics of these colorful, fearless little birds very much. There’s a sizeable flock hanging out at Hawk’s Haven, maybe as many as two dozen, so the feeders are always busy. And of course, goldfinches aren’t the only ones who’re enjoying them. House finches, chickadees, and the occasional sparrow and nuthatch also perch on the tubes to eat the black-oil sunflower seeds we put out for them. And cardinals, blue jays, grackles, and mourning doves patrol the ground below the feeders for spilled seed, while the robins, who ignore the seed, also amble around, apparently just to see what’s going on. (Our friend Ben can imagine them saying, “Gee, looks like a party, but where are the earthworm canapes?!”)

Our friend Ben loves birds of all types and stripes, even to the point of taking an ornithology class after first arriving in Pennsylvania. But I consider myself to be a birdwatcher—someone who loves to watch birds for pleasure—rather than a birder, someone who considers watching birds a competitive sport, keeps a life list, and etc. Yes, I have binoculars, and will pull them out to admire our resident Cooper’s hawk or to check out something unusual that appears on the property. And of course I have lots of books and field guides on birds. But no, I can’t identify a bird by its call, and no, I can’t identify every single sparrow that turns up at Hawk’s Haven, and no, I don’t plan my vacations around birding hotspots. There are so many birds I haven’t ever seen, such as all the hummingbirds besides our native ruby-throated, and all the marvelous blue jays and hawks that live far from the East Coast. (I did once see a golden eagle in the Columbia River Gorge, a heart-lifting experience I’ll take with me to the grave. But it was a chance encounter, not a birding expedition.) Even after a lifetime of observing birds, enjoying birds, and reading about birds, my knowledge of them is casual indeed.

Which brings me (finally!) to the point of this post. As you know if you’re lucky enough to have goldfinches on your property, they have white bars on their wings, which are especially dramatic against the black wings of the yellow males. As our friend Ben has been enjoying the close-up views of goldfinches at our feeders, I’ve been noticing white bars on the wings of some of the house finches, too. Now, our friend Ben did not recall seeing white bars on house finch wings ever before. Could they have been interbreeding with the goldfinches to create hybrid finches?

The internet has made online research as easy as a click of the mouse. As an editor and writer, our friend Ben is as dependent on Google, Wikipedia, and specialist sites as anybody else. The day never goes by that I’m not online researching something. And the library here at Hawk’s Haven contains literally thousands of books on every conceivable subject, so I have in-depth resources at my fingertips as well. When this particular question came up, our friend Ben’s first instinct was to go to the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which is not only a marvelous resource but also archives the Project FeederWatch findings, to see if they had anything to say on the subject. (The link is on our blogroll and we highly recommend it. Check it out!) Or I could Google “house finches” or head to my in-house library and see what I could turn up. Easy!

But suddenly, our friend Ben had what a friend’s mother immortally referred to as a rush of brains to the head. Or maybe, in this case, to the heart. You see, our friend Ben is lucky enough to have a good friend who’s a renowned birder. Someone who’s extremely well respected in the birding world, has gone all over the world to see birds, has written extensively about birds, has spent a great deal of time keeping up with developments in ornithology and bird ecology. Someone, in short, who really knows his birds. It occurred to our friend Ben that, instead of researching on my own, I could use this opportunity to reach out to another real, live human being. To have a conversation rather than a solitary experience. To use this as an occasion to create community, to reinforce human bonds, rather than seeing it as an isolated search for knowledge.

Instead of reaching for the mouse, our friend Ben reached for the phone. I had a good time catching up with my friend. And of course he knew the answer right off the bat (house finches do have white-barred wings, I wasn’t seeing hybrids). Rather than acquiring simple information, our friend Ben had enjoyed communication.

The facts are always with us. Information is useful, but human contact is priceless. The next time you need to know something, our friend Ben suggests that you think about who you know who might enjoy sharing his or her expertise in the subject. Could Uncle Don give you some pointers on building that deck? Does your friend Jen have a special touch with banana bread? Is one of your neighbors renowned for his grilling prowess? Do the women in that little yarn shop on the corner know more about knitting than anyone in town? Let your quest for knowledge become not just an opportunity for you to learn, but for someone else to share. You’ll both be richer for the experience.        



1. ceecee - April 28, 2008

Well goodness, I could have just called your birding friend instead of spending two springs trying to figure out the bird at my feeder (turned out to be a Lesser Goldfinch).
Google is also my best friend. I am the person that folks reach out to for information, and often use Google to help me with their queries.
Good point though, we get in touch with others less and less when we need answers.

Ha! I was just looking at a picture of the black-backed version of the lesser goldfinch the other day, thinking what a handsome fellow he was. And if folks are looking to you for answers, then you’ve got the human touch on the opposite end, right? You’re *their* human contact!

2. deb - April 28, 2008

What a great post. I forget to call my friends who are in the know about all kinds of things outdoors. Thanks for the reminder.

Most welcome, Deb, and thanks! I think we all forget what amazing resources we have in our friends and families. I was happy for the reminder myself!

3. linda - April 28, 2008

Excellent post, and excellent point.

I’m always picking people’s brains and peppering them with questions. For example, the owner of the nursery where I work is extremely intelligent and knowlegeable about a lot of things. Among other things he’s a classical music and opera buff, a history buff, an avid bird enthusiast, and of course, having been in the plant business for over 20 years, he knows more than anyone else I know about plants. I have yet to stump him. I always have great conversations with his wife and him, and almost always come away from our conversations having learned something.

Thanks, Linda, and how lucky you are to have such a great resource right there at hand! It always amazes many how many different things people know and skills they have. It’s really humbling!

4. Cinj - April 29, 2008

An excellent point, to be sure! People get so into technology that they forget about people. Well, except when I’m being asked how to spell something. Apparently I am a walking dictionary??? But I’m so worried that I’ll spell it wrong that I tell them how to spell it AND make them look it up to make sure it’s right. 99 times out of 100 I am right, but what kind of teacher would I be if I didn’t try to make the child use their brain at least a little bit?

Ha! Good job, Cinj! I always have to fend off people who are asking for directions. They’ll cross 6 lanes of traffic and bypass 500 people to ask me how to get somewhere. And talk about clueless! They’d be better off asking a passing pigeon. But I try to console myself by thinking that I must look either competent or approachable!

5. Kristi - April 29, 2008

Sounds lovely, I wish we had more birds. The ravens and blue jays have pretty much scared off a lot of the more colorful and delicate birds.

Goodness, Kristi! And here I’d always thought it would be interesting to have ravens. Guess I don’t think that any more!

6. jodi - April 29, 2008

Wonderful post, as always. You know what, though? I am so tired of talking on the phone for research purposes during the run of my week, that I just get tired of the phone and of talking…so I write instead. That’s quieter, plus well gee, I often have fits of working in the middle of the night and friends and family don’t appreciate phone calls at 3 am….;-)

Ha! I can only agree. I hate the telephone, much preferring to talk face-to-face or to send an e-mail. (Writers! What can one say?) I guess that’s why the concept of calling my friend struck me with such force–it was such a novelty!

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