Two items, tenuously related by pigeons: an art exhibition of clay penguins (cf. clay pigeons); and the appearance of a cluster of birds on my patio this afternoon, including a pair of house finches (new to my place) and a mourning dove (the names dove and pigeon don’t correspond to any taxonomic distinction among the columbids), which methodically mined the patio territory for food for half an hour.

Clay pigeons. From Anna Maria Thornton on the 17th, a present of penguins to cheer me up — from the Royal Academy of Arts Young Artists’ Summer Show 2020:

(#1) [From the site:] “Nineteen clay modelled penguins make up our march…inspired by our studies into penguins using BBC film footage from ‘Spy in the Huddle’.”

From the BBC description of the 2013 3-episode series:

Spy in the Huddle spends nearly a year in the close company of penguins, deploying 50 spycams to capture as never before the true character of these birds.

Now, the clay penguins as above are clay simulacra of penguins. But clay pigeons, as in the shooting sport, are only historically related to pigeons, and are no longer made of ordinary clay.

From Wikipedia:

Clay pigeon shooting, also known as clay target shooting, is a shooting sport involving shooting a firearm at special flying targets known as clay pigeons, or clay targets.

The terminology commonly used by clay shooters often relates to times past, when live-pigeon competitions were held. Although such competitions were made illegal in the United Kingdom in 1921, a target may still be called a “bird”, a hit may be referred to as a “kill”, and a missed target as a “bird away”; the machine which projects the targets is still known as a “trap”.

… The targets used for the sport are usually in the shape of an inverted saucer, made from a mixture of pitch and pulverized limestone rock designed to withstand being thrown from traps at very high speeds, but at the same time being easily broken when hit by just a very few lead or steel pellets from a shotgun.

Pigeons on the grass alas. Well, they’re called mourning doves, but they’re equivalent to pigeons, and this one was on the grass, on the patio tiles, and mostly searching through the narrow strip of garden –slowly and scrupulously, for an unbelievable amount of time. Unflappable. Meanwhile, juncos fluttered down for the birdseed on the ground and scrub jays swooped into the bird feeder to carry off peanuts.

In the midst of this, two more birds showed up at the bird feeder, new kids in town: a pair of house finches, a reddish male and a plain brown female. (And suddeny I realized just how gigantic the scrub jays are.)

The very brief run-down, from Wikipedia:

The house finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) is a bird in the finch family Fringillidae. It is native to western North America and has been introduced to the eastern half of the continent and Hawaii.

The much longer story, from the Minneapolis Star Tribune: “House finches spread like wildfire: Their beautiful song led to their appeal as caged birds, but they’ve emerged as the ultimate survivors” by Val Cunningham on 12/20/11:

(#2) House finch pair (photo: Jim Williams for the Star Tribune)

That reddish finch at your feeders is an amazing bird, capable of great feats of resilience in the face of some very hard times. Consider its recent history: Its ancestors were netted for years along the West Coast and sold, illegally, as caged birds, valued for their year-round singing. Transported, again illegally, to the East by pet dealers, some dozens were released around New York in the 1940s to avoid federal investigators.

Although thousands of miles from familiar habitat and facing cold winters, the birds did just fine. They not only survived, but thrived and soon had spread from the East Coast all the way to the Mississippi River, with a population in the millions.

They came to our state late in the game, but were firmly established by the 1990s. What had been a Western bird now owned the East, as well. At its peak, in the mid-1990s, the house finch population was estimated as being in the hundreds of millions.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology calls the spread of the house finch “one of the most notable ornithological events of the 20th century in North America.” No other bird has colonized such a wide area in so short a time in such huge numbers. These are social birds that congregate in large flocks, doubtless a factor in their survival.

Like all birds whose populations undergo major increases, this is a very adaptable species. House finches prefer to live near humans in parks, on farms, and in urban and suburban areas. They’re big fans of bird feeders, especially those filled with black oil sunflower or safflower seeds.

Of course, here on the northern California coast, we have the old original house finches. Right out my window.


3 Responses to “Birdland”

  1. John Baker Says:

    I take it that the pigeon/dove distinction is somewhat similar to, but perhaps vaguer than, the crow/raven distinction. Any individual corvid species may be either a crow species or a raven species, almost arbitrarily, although raven species generally are larger than crow species. But each species generally is consistently known (there may be exceptions) as a crow or a raven species. Or at least that is my impression.

  2. julianne taaffe Says:

    Well, as of this moment, I have a new affection for the house finches at my feeders.

  3. Robert Coren Says:

    The last several years, we’ve had mourning doves nesting in our Gloucester (MA) garage. The most recent fledglings seem to have departed yesterday.

    For many years, we would get a couple of house finch nests under the eaves on the porch. Sometime in the 1990s(?), I believe there was some sort of plague (conjunctivitis, maybe) that wiped out much of the New England house finch population, and we haven’t seen them since; the porch has been taken over by house sparrows.

    Until this year. A couple of weeks ago I spotted a bird flying out of one of the porch nests and landing in the nearby birch tree, and I said, “That’s no house sparrow” — it had the characteristic reddish-purple head of the male house finch. Since then I’ve seen the female several times, and heard their voices. Nice to have them back; I hope the house sparrows don’t drive them out.

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