The human touch. April 28, 2008Posted by ourfriendben in critters, wit and wisdom.
Tags: birdwatching, goldfinches, sharing
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.