Finches I Have Known

Notes from the life of a bird whisperer

By Brian Doyle | June 19, 2015
Márcio Vinícius Pinheiro/Flickr
Márcio Vinícius Pinheiro/Flickr


There is the goldfinch I see every other morning, surfing on a dandelion in full fluff, and the way he or she strolls up the stalk, cheerfully bending the plant down to where the seeds are available, which is so like a surfer inching up his or her board to hang 10 that I laugh out loud, and the finch looks up with a totally innocent look, exactly the look my children wore when they had committed a misdemeanor and were disavowing both the crime and any knowledge of it. So I laugh again, and the finch pops up in the air like a cork, and then comes down deftly on the next dandelion, exactly like an acrobat miraculously landing on a high wire, and I shuffle along into the rest of my day, delighted and amazed and agape and filled with wonder.

There was the house finch who lived just outside the door of the tiny apartment in which my lovely bride first lived when we were married, some years ago, in a tiny town that jutted out into the Atlantic Ocean just like a child waves a lollipop from a car window. Every morning I would emerge from our tiny apartment, and stroll under his or her nest, and try to say hey in finch, a sort of liquid musical trill and undulating whistle, and sometimes the finch would say hey back in finch, but sometimes he or she would just pop up and stare at me silently, which always made me think I had maybe said something vulgar in finch because I didn’t know the language very well, and then I would wonder the rest of the day just what I had said. Had I called him or her a starling by accident? Or shockingly called hawks cool beings and not murderous slime? Or had I by chance insulted heritage or character or cultural tradition? Still I wonder, and still I practice finch, here and there, when I am alone, and no one else is in the house to cry Dadddd! Pleeeeease! Stopppp!

There was a saffron finch I met on an island in the Pacific Ocean, a remarkable finch altogether, friendly and conversational, and tremendously skilled at harvesting crickets, so much so that I spent a number of hours counting caught crickets, and noticing that the finch certainly preferred crickets to other insects and seeds, and indeed it seemed as if this particular finch had it in for crickets in general, and would scour the sprawling pastures of the yard for crickets for quite a while before settling for something else to eat. I wondered if the finches of this island had developed a particular animus for crickets, and what the crickets had done to earn such enmity, and what the crickets were planning to adjust the balance of power, or if it was just this one particular finch that had a cricket jones, but there was no way for me to tell, as I never did learn finch well enough to discuss the matter reasonably, and was reduced to burbling in my rudimentary finch, which appeared to amuse this particular finch, as far as I could tell, during the weeks I was on that island in the Pacific.

There have been other finches I knew glancingly, as acquaintances at best, but those are the three that come first to mind when I think about finches I have known, although I would very much like to know finches better, both as individuals and as a community, for there are many questions I would like to ask, about music and language and flight and crickets, and I am sure there are questions they would like to ask, and wouldn’t it be a pleasure to sit over a beer with a finch, and talk of many things, of shoes and ships and sealing-wax, of cabbages and kings?

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