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Birds of a Feather
by Tom Thomson

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Siskins in Love

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Siskins in love. I know such a notion is the worst (or maybe the best) kind of anthropomorphism. But, before you dismiss such an idea, here me out.

I had noticed this pair of small siskins for a month or more. They are closely related to goldfinches, but the males lack the bright yellow and black plumage of that species. Instead, they are heavily daubed with brownish streaks on a wash of pale yellow. Here and there, a few feathers are a bit brighter yellow-in the wings and in the base of the tail, for instance.

Every time I saw these siskins they were close together, seemingly inseperable. More than once I witnessed the male singing his exuberant song as he flew in circles around his female companion. Or I would see them bathing together in a little stream of water. Or foraging for seeds. Sometimes they would touch bills or one of them would pass food to the other.

Later, I saw the female gathering nesting material - and, as always, the male was at her side. Their nest of twigs and rootlets and grasses was concealed high up in the whispering branches of a hemlock tree in a shady ravine.

Then one day a Cooper's hawk flew into a nearby tree. A blue jay screamed in alarm and a pair of robins tut-tutted their disapproval. But it was the male siskin who put his life on the line. Dauntlessly circling about the hawk, he repeatedly dived at its head and finally succeeded in driving it off.

The conquering hero returned to the nesting tree - and the female flew out to greet him. Together - for a few brief moments - they ascended into the sky, the male singing his song - vibrantly, triumphantly, tenderly - it seemed to me, and the female responded, her wings spread wide, excitedly chattering, uttering her own muted song in response.

In The Lost Notebooks of Loren Eiseley, edited by Kenneth Heuer, there is this revealing passage penned by the great anthropologist: "Anthropomorphizing: the charge of my critics. My counter-charge. There is a sense in which when we cease to anthropomorphize, we cease to be men, for when we cease to have human contact with animals and deny them all relation to ourselves, we tend in the end to cease to anthropomorphize ourselves - to deny our own humanity." So there you are.

Siskins in love. It is possible, is it not? If you don't believe me, read The Human Nature of Birds, by Theodore Xenophon Barber.

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