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In This Place

A swarm of finches

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Jamie Holly
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Goldfinch

I have always taken a certain pleasure in the knowledge that a flock of finches (whose name I share with them) is traditionally known as a “charm.” “A charm of finches.” Not only is it a delightful name, but it seems an appropriate term for these diminutive songbirds. Goldfinches, particularly the males, are certainly charming, especially in the spring when their newly-minted bright yellow coats, accented with black wings and white bars, seem to reflect the sun. Their striking spring plumage makes up for their lack of any distinctive song, which Ken Kaufmann in his Guide to North American Birds charitably, yet charmingly, describes as “a jumbled twittering.”

Finches also seem to have admirably charming manners, at least at our feeder, where they are the most common species throughout the year. Most bird species arrive at our feeder singly or in pairs – nuthatches, chickadees, titmice, the occasional pine siskin or evening grosbeak, and every so often a blue jay or hairy woodpecker.

Goldfinches, in contrast, seem to travel in small flocks, and I usually see them at the feeder in groups of three or four. Here they seem to me to be “well-behaved,” or, to refer again to their group name, they exhibit “charming” manners.

Our feeder can accommodate four birds at a time, and if there are more than that, the other finches will wait patiently, perching on the hanger strap above the feeder or clinging to the nearby window screen. They seem polite, but also confident and self-possessed. If other small songbirds are at the feeder when a larger bird – say a blue jay or a cardinal – arrives, they will take off immediately and wait until the larger bird departs, but finches seem quite willing to share their space, not only with other finches, but with larger birds as well. “Excuse me, excuse me,” they seem to say as they sidle over to a vacant perch to make room for the new arrival. They are the very model of accommodation, which only adds to their “charm.”

That is, until the morning of the blizzard that hit the Cape on January 29.

That morning, in the teeth of a wild, snowy northeaster, the finches arrived, not in a charm, but in a “swarm.” Ten, fifteen, perhaps as many as twenty finches swarmed around the feeder: whirling, landing, jostling, scattering, pushing one another, playing a frenzied avian version of Musical Chairs. Their constant motion made it impossible to determine just how many birds there were. They seemed possessed, reflecting the wildness and chaos of the storm around them. In their frenzied flurry of bird-activity, they were more like a cloud of bees or locusts than songbirds.

For several hours they monopolized the feeder and the space around it. Their kinetic energy seemed to keep away all other birds, large or small. Shedding all pretense of sociability or equity, they adopted the fundamental mantra of survival, “Every finch for himself!”

So in birds, as in people, extreme conditions can reveal hitherto hidden aspects of their character, and of ours.