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Spring 2001 Edition

Encounter with a Goldfinch
by Sue Holloway

On the third floor porch of the house where I live, there are several bird feeders, including an acrylic tube with thistle seeds for goldfinches. Recently, I was painting the frame of an old mirror, and left it out on the porch to dry.

cc-goldfinch-mirror.jpg (55452 bytes)When I went back out, there was a tiny bird, contemplating his reflection!

This male goldfinch had already molted, the bright yellow replaced with a muted olive tone. He hopped off a short distance, looking at me calmly. He didn’t appear distressed. But often injured birds "mask" their injuries, so they do not attract the attention of predators.

Giving him time to recuperate, in case he had hit the glass, I left him alone and painted. He stood nearby and watched curiously. Approaching closer in a friendly manner, he nibbled thistle scattered under the feeder. When I stood to go inside, he remained relaxed.

While he was alone, two other goldfinches in the tree beside the porch came and talked to him, energetically and vociferously. Their two different "messages" were familiar calls that I had heard before. Perhaps this was a young bird just learning to fly and feed on his own, and the birds calling were his parents.

Their calls faded, as the sharp cries of two blue jays rang out, and the larger birds swept in. Rather than fleeing, the goldfinch perched on the edge of the frame, looking at the "other" bird.

As I approached, he turned and looked at me, but didn’t move. In a while, he hopped off, and I painted. I talked with him, and he remained there for a couple of hours, observing the several coats of goldenrod hue added to the frame.

As I thought about where he could hide from predators, he seemed to have gotten the idea, and showed me. Coming very close, he tucked himself behind the mirror! But soon, he was peeking out of the corner, within a foot of my elbow. Again, he watched the brush as it stroked the boards, making them brighter – the color of his papa; his own color only weeks earlier.

This little guy was curious. When he wandered into the entry way, heading toward the stairs, I followed and picked him up and brought him back out. He let me do this, easily. Thinking he might have been stunned from flying into the mirror, I held my cupped hands over the goldfinch, and sent healing light.

Birds have a much faster metabolism and heartbeat than humans, and this seemed to energize him. As quickly as I moved back to paint again, he began to hop my way, in very unusual, high hops. It seemed to be playful, and the bird appeared to be fine. But he remained, curious and gregarious, with no apparent inclination to bolt.

Late in the afternoon, I held the bird over the ledge, opening my hands to see if he could fly. Instantly, he soared off, free.

* * *

When I shared the story of the precious visit with a friend, she noted how we are often cautioned not to touch wild animals, lest it create a false impression of safety with humans. Yet, we both believe the natural state is more like the afternoon spent with the tiny feathered visitor: our relationship with all life, imbued with innocence and trust, friendship and playfulness.

Let me give you a few examples.

In Home to the Wilderness (1973), Sally Carrighar describes how, when camping on a Canadian island, she had a sense of being accepted by the birds. Sometimes, she talked to them. She felt the creatures knew and accepted her, and she could comprehend their ways of communicating with her.

Judith Stone, in the protected Galapagos Islands, off of Ecuador, spent hours among iguanas, who, rather than slipping away into the sea, just "grinned and dozed." When a six-hundred-pound tortoise extended his neck, she stroked it. A tiny sea lion kissed her foot; the animals, naturally gregarious.

In 1994, at a conference in Banff, Alberta, Canada, one of forty wilderness areas left on Earth, friends and I watched elk slip in and out of residential and commercial areas. Small herds grazed or sunned on lawns beside the river downtown. The elk were free to come and go; people and creatures accepted each others’ presence.

My friend Sy Montgomery wrote of an emu trio’s enigmatic acceptance of her in the Australian outback. She followed them into the freezing night, and when they accepted her proximity, she described the experience as being in "a ring of enchantment."

Diane Ackerman described herself as being in a "seal fantasia when she visited Niihua, a remote island in the Hawaiian archipelago. While she was diving in a lagoon beside a cave, an adult monk seal appeared. It watched her, then dove under her, surfacing and resurfacing, always to look in her face.

Peter Matthiesen’s Wildlife in America (1987) reports tales of sea otters being naturally gentle and tame. And buffalo were unafraid of humans.

In July,1999, kayaking in the Churchill River estuary, Manitoba, Canada, I experienced the natural friendliness and playfulness of beluga. The whales came individually, in pairs, and as pods, accompanying our kayaks. They sang, played with the rudders, sometimes slightly lifted the boat!

The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds documents wild birds such as a great crested flycatcher, screech owl, grouse, saw-whet owl, solitary vireo, kinglet, and humming birds allowing people to stroke or hold them. Bohemian waxwings and house wrens landed on people’s shoulders and hair.

In Intimate Nature:The Bond Between Women and Animals (1998), Deena Metzger tells how she hummed with belugas, who sounded back to her. When she hummed to a squirrel, the creature not only hummed but also tapped with her!

Alice Walker describes how, whatever animal or plant she thinks of becomes aware and responsive.

Imagine, if we returned to the primal innocence, a situation of affiliation, with all the creatures...It is possible, partly because we now dwell in close proximity to "natural" areas. But it is possible mostly because, I believe, this is our evolutionary destiny, and we are coming back to what we have always known.

Note: This originally appeared in the Back to Earth Column 11/30/00 of The Source, Madison, CT; The Sound, Branford, CT; The Harbor News, Clinton, CT; & The Guilford Courier, Guilford, CT. Reprinted by Permission of Shoreline Publishing, Inc.

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