Some treasures come in small packages

The HOUSE FINCH (Haemorhous mexicanus) is the featured creature of the day. This sparrow-sized bird is very common and has an interesting history to why it has become so bountiful over the entire North American continent. It was a bird originally found in the western United States and Mexico. In 1940, a small number of finches were turned loose on Long Island, New York, after failed attempts to sell them as cage birds. This unauthorized “stocking” of birds was the start as they breed and began to spread across the eastern United States and southern Canada over the next 50 years.

The red color of the male House Finch comes from pigments contained in its foods. So the more red pigment it finds in its strictly plant food diet, the redder a males feathers become. It seems females prefer males with lots of red. Perhaps it is an indicator of the male to be a good food provider during nesting times. Nestlings, usually three to five, but can range from just two to as many as six, are fed almost exclusively plant foods. I must use the word almost because there is evidence that animal (insects) are needed periodically to keep the protein levels high enough for a successful nest. Otherwise on its food list are seeds, bud, fruits, knotweed, thistle, mulberry, cherries, apricots, peaches, pears, plums, strawberries, blackberries and figs. At feeder stations they will eat black oil sunflower or the larger striped sunflower seeds, millet and milo.

How long to House Finches live? A known bird was aged at 11 years 7 months when she was recaptured and released in 1985 during banding operations in New York. Her original capture was in 1973. Part of the success of this species is its adaptability to all kinds of habitats, urban, rural, farmsteads, dry deserts, desert grasslands, oak savannahs, stream sides, and open coniferous forests below 6,000 feet elevation. It should not be too hard to find this colorful bird nearby. Enjoy one of natures treasures. Price? Free.

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New books come along periodically that exceed whatever had come before…bigger, better, more facts, more photos. Such is the case with the book called Peterson Reference Guide to Woodpeckers of North America. Author is Stephen A Shunk. It is 298 pages long published by Houghton Miflin Harcourt. I will be adding this book to my library soon as it seems to be a fact filled reference book. Several pages are devoted to each species accompanied by many excellent photos.

Easy to read range maps are included. Lengthy descriptions of each species show details of distribution, range, habitat, subspecies, behavior, biology and conservation. The more anyone learns about biology, the more questions that get answered. And then we realize how little we do know about natures mysteries of life. It is fun to learn, and fun to gather more and more facts.

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WILDLIFE WATCHING is a form of citizen science. Thomas Jefferson, a former President of the United States, had an additional vision for the people of this country. His vision relied on citizens relishing a civic duty and claiming their right to be informed and educated. These were major factors for the people to self govern, curb corruption, privilege and aristocracy. But he had to start simple so he encouraged thermometers be provided to a ‘deputy’ in every county in Virginia with instructions to log twice-daily observations of temperature and wind direction.

But others who were not so interested in temperature or winds, could focus on things of nature that interested them: Sequencing of flower blooming, bird migration spring and fall dates of comings and goings, insect emergence, animal behavior, and much more. In these small ways citizen science was getting a start toward bigger and better data gathering programs.

The Revolutionary War derailed Jefferson’s systematic statewide plan. But close to home he did continue to keep a near complete series of weather observation between 1776 and 1816, which included his two terms in office and with recruits like Lewis and Clark, a new plan was being formulated for the discovery of the western United States. Jefferson, in a time before meteorologists and climatologists, caused him to enlist citizens in data collection. Part of Jefferson’s motive was to dispel rumors in Europe that this strange new country of America produced degenerate animals of smaller size, weaker and just plain inferior to European animals. He knew when the European people were being lied to and he didn’t appreciate their nose-in-the-air attitude of superiority.

Weather data collected by Jefferson proved that the ratio of sunny to cloudy days in America was much higher than European countries. For lots of people in Europe, rain and cool weather was normal. It was a rare day when the sun dominated the sky with warm air and soft wind. And after the Voyage of Discovery by Lewis and Clark, it became quite clear that American had its own unique assemblage of large animals, diverse habitats, large rivers, fertile land for farming and abundant resources of all kinds. Jefferson pushed back and told Americans to be proud of what we had on this continent.

Best of all, citizen science gives people an unselfish, guilt-free reason to take a break, go outside, and slow down enough to observe their world. In return they gain discoveries, large and small, that they will never forget. Participating in citizen science will alter lives and shape how we view ourselves, our environment and our communities.

Fast forward to 2017, and in some respects, citizen science is still an on-going area of interest. Nowadays, we have to be very careful of the misuse of science to support ideological political agendas. Facts matter but if the pieces can be cherry-picked to make something sound reasonable, even though the underlying premises are false, who is going to know? Smart citizen science followers will know they are being lied to. Smart citizen scientists will know that facts have to be obtained from many outside sources, not the spoon fed dribble from major media outlets. No Chicken Little, the sky is not falling. The earth will continue to exist as it always has over the last 4.6 billion years. Continents will drift, bump into and slide apart from each other. Mountain ranges will rise and erode away. Ocean levels will rise and fall in direct correlation to natural world wide glacial advances and retreats. Volcanoes will burp and pulse here and there, and some will explode with such ferocity as to cool the earth’s atmosphere for years at a time until all settles down again. The Sun will continue to pulse in its energy output as sun spots come and go. And earth’s orbit will continue in its long term orbits of circular to slightly elliptical and back again.

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In 1967 a Wartburg College professor paused suddenly during his lecture and made the following statement (He was referring to the term “gnosticism,” the idea that certain enlightened people have secret information that ordinary people do not. Today it can be categorized as “elitism” or being “politically correct” just because it is trendy and part of an ideology).

“Never let anyone tell you they have access to special information that isn’t available to you. If you want to know the truth, you need to seek it our for yourselves.”


Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at P.O. Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.