I’m thinking about captive birds and animals right now- partly because of a book I’m reading (tomorrow’s post) and partly because I may have an opportunity, compliments of Rich’s sports marketing consultation with A-B, to get a VIP tour of Busch Gardens in Tampa next week. I’ve never been there but you know I’m itching for a chance to see that baby gorilla. I have all sorts of mixed feelings and thoughts about our relationships with animals but I’m going to try and narrow it down and just explore a couple threads about my relationships with animals.
I have mentioned before that I have an aviary. This is a glorified big bird cage -6x4x3- all up on a high base that keeps them at eye level. It’s very attractive, especially since I put birch branches in instead of regular perches and there’s some very nice silk ivy in the corners for the birds to take cover as they please.
I raise finches. Actually they do this on their own given the right circumstances so I’m not really overly involved with them. I just provide them what they need- food and fresh fruit and veggies and nice sticks and a fresh bird bath everyday. There are an even dozen of them: four Zebra finches, 2 Shafttails (Australian Grass Finch), 2 Society finches and 2 Gouldians.
For many years I wanted birds closer to me than just at the numerous feeders outside in the yard, in the nesting boxes at the back of the lot or in the marsh grass at the lake but it only seems right that birds be free to fly around and do their thing. So I couldn’t really justify getting a bunch and putting them in a cage. At some point it occurred to me that I could give them a better life than they had as captives of Pet Supplys Plus but then there’s that issue of perpetuating the problem. Finally, a couple years ago, I fell to the side of "keeping birds."
These finches are not much interested in me, which is how I want it. They have a very complex and organized society in there and they live out their days in happy conversation and short flights and preening and watching the birds outside. In nature, finches tend to live in bushes and small trees and fly in little spurts anyway so I never have the impression that they want to just take off. The couple times one or the other has gone on the lam, they just hop into the ficus tree near their cage. I don’t touch them unless I absolutely have to; every once in a while there’s a minor medical emergency. I would sort of like to hold on to one and gently scratch it’s crown but they clearly want no part of that. They chatter at me as I replace their water or proffer a green pepper hull but that’s it.
Mainly, I watch and listen. They have an amazing range of sounds. The Shafttails are the cage gossips. They hop up and down on the perch and report to each other about any changes; a new branch requires hours of discussion. The Society finches are the social workers in there. They care not only for each other but also the other species in the cage and in fact, one reason people keep a pair of these not-so-vibrant birds is that they make wonderful surrogate parents if the natural parents fail. The Gouldians are the flash and glamor of the aviary. With their brilliant red, green and purple colors and their somewhat shy and quiet nature they draw everyone’s attention.
The cage clowns are the four Zebras. The gang leader is Mine-Mine and he’s one boisterous fellow. He wants to own the show and sometimes he gets so carried away in his attempt to monopolize both seed cups that he loses out flitting back and forth and squawking while the others feed. He grooms both his partner and the other female. Mostly, he lives to reproduce. He is a wonderful mate and father. Whereas the other finches know me as the bringer of food, Mine-Mine knows that he can wheedle a piece of yarn or a flower from me- something to pad his nest. He sees me knitting across the room and begs for fiber and when I give in he can spend a whole day redecorating his quarters. Then, five hours later, his mate will hop in and she’ll toss the whole load of goods out the door and he starts anew.
During the lazy days of summer the sliding door is open and the finches talk to the outside world: the Chickadees love to visit and come perch on the vine that grows over the deck. They take a lot of baths in the summer, splashing water everywhere. But this time of year their little systems and tiny brains turn to baby making. They have molted and sent tiny fluff feathers every which way and now all activity is focused on building a good nest, laying eggs and feeding babies. And now, for a brief time, they are extra dependent on me. Only if I choose to give them a nest will they mate and lay eggs; otherwise, they just act randy and frustrated all day and then go instantly to sleep when I turn out the lights in the library at 8 pm. And I will only give them a nest if I have a good home for the babies in advance- a couple of our local senior homes and the hospice take them where they are loved and well cared for. Pet stores- no. I have some homes lined up so after I get back from this next trip to Florida I’ll hang a few nests and the fun will begin. It’s a six week long process from start to finish and I’ll post some pictures along the way, as I did with the ducks. This picture here shows Mrs. Mine-Mine with a hungry baby (actually, none of them have names except Mine-Mine. I don’t really feel like they’re mine to name.). See those spots on the roof of the baby’s mouth? That’s a signal: blow lunch for me, please. Do you notice how her beak is orange and the baby’s is black? All babies and juveniles have black beaks so they don’t attract the attention of birds eager to mate. The adult males have darker orange or red beaks while the females have paler beaks. There are some other ways to tell male from female in some species but the Gouldians and Shafttails look almost identical other than a subtle difference in beak.
The beak of a finch says a lot to other finches and to us about the nature of things. I am currently reading The Beak of the Finch , a Pulitzer Prize winning book by Jonathan Weiner and it tells of a couple studying evolution on a tiny Galapagos Island, in much the same way that Darwin did. They spend day after day after day sitting still and watching. They know over 300 birds by sight- even though they all would look identical to you or me. What do you think? Does that sound like fun? To be a watcher of birds on a tiny island, season after season? It does to me. I couldn’t do it though, unless they put a nine hole course on the island so Rich would come along. Go figure.