Winter Solstice Lesson: A requiem for a finch

This secluded spot in the pine woods provides the final resting place for a house finch whose passing offered food for thought.

On the afternoon of December 21, the winter solstice, a male house finch died beneath the bird feeder on the deck of our house. I saw him bunched up with his beak deep in his feathers—puzzling at that time of day and in weather that was not terribly cold. And then, perhaps to be out of the path of other birds, he dragged himself feebly to the foot of a rail column, his wing batting against the deck as though paddling a canoe through mud. There he lay, immobile, his presence ignored by the energetic titmice and chickadees taking off and landing around him.

My daughter, who is a biologist, wrapped his inert body, still warm, in a paper towel and examined it from all angles. “Look at his beak,” she said. I saw a dark raised smudge that seemed to me like a clump of dirt near its eye. “This looks like avian pox,” she said. “It’s a contagious disease that mostly affects house finches and their close relatives.”

While my husband sterilized the feeder, my daughter and I set off to the woods to find a suitable burial site. A large cracked rock at the base of a Virginia pine became the tombstone. My daughter laid the bird in the shallow grave and offered a few words of respect to our small departed neighbor before sliding dirt and pine needles over the bright red feathers.

On our walk back to the house, she pointed out an autumn olive sapling not far from the grave. I looked around and saw several more. We’d recently paid a landscaping company $800 to cut down some large ones that hugged the borders of the open fields. Now I saw they’d found a new home among the trees.

Before learning that autumn olive trees are invasive, I used to enjoy their silvery leaves, smooth trunks and branches, bountiful yellow flowers, and pollinator visitors like butterflies, birds, and bees. As is the case with many plants deliberately introduced into a new niche to remedy a problem (such as land disturbance) or beautify a landscape, autumn olives thrive a bit too well and usurp the habitat of native species. This hardy shrub is drought-resistant, tolerant of poor soil, and amazingly good at sprouting new growth.

As I grumbled about the autumn olives we passed, my daughter reminded me that house finches like the one we had just buried are not native to this area either. They used to be found only in the west until someone got the idea of caging them and selling them back east as “Hollywood finches,” a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. When this illicit activity was discovered in the 1940s, pet stores with house finches for sale released the birds into the wild. Now the population of house finches in the East is large, and many people enjoy watching them at feeders or in parks.

My daughter suggested that I observe the autumn olives on our property throughout the year. What plants were growing there before? Which insects and birds are drawn to them? How quickly are they spreading?

I looked at the shrubs again but with more equanimity. Rather than as a despised foe, I saw them as another resident of the woods. I regarded them with unbiased curiosity.

My previous unilateral abhorrence of the autumn olive tree makes me wonder about my other unexamined beliefs. Do I judge a historical figure, a newspaper, a TV network, a president, a religion, a political party as either all good or all bad?

For me, a new year begins the day after the solstice when the sun reverses its track—a fitting time to reverse my own thinking. Perhaps a small bird’s death marks the turning point.