Obedience to tradition

Perhaps I have already confessed to gentle reader the mischievous tricks I play on animals. On the purple finches, and finchesses, now accustomed to free lunch on the balconata of the High Doganate — or rather, early breakfast, then snacks throughout the day — I have played a good one.

Formerly, I was feeding them from a tray at some distance from my writing station; but now I arrange their preferred sunflower seeds along the outside ledge of my window. A screen alone separates the little one, just now crackling and gobbling, from your Idleposter, typing inside.

I am no ornithologist, able to judge the age of a bird at one glance, but am sure this fellow is young, quite young. Young, and therefore fearless, or rather, poorly informed. Even my more sudden movements do not drive him away. Catch him young and, I speculate, one might tame him.

They are melodious creatures, and my motive for luring them along the ledge to the screen was not only to see, but to hear them at close quarters: to learn, if it were possible, a little of the language in which they poetically delight, and the choral arrangements for the singing of their Hours, starting with Lauds about five in the morning.

Much is explained by circumstance. Just earlier, an older finch alone on my railing was chirping earnestly to unseen companions. It was easy to follow. In English translation, his soliloquy went like this:

“I want to crackle and gobble some seeds, but I’m not up to risking it alone. There’s a fresh lot here that The Monster has put out. Are any of you birds hungry? I need five or six for safety. Is Tommy the Guardsman there?”

Normally they feed in groups, and I have noticed one of the group — usually tall Tommy — will stretch himself up to his fullest standing height, and stare through the screen at me directly. He will tolerate me sitting still, but at the first sign of movement, he shrills, and all fly off instantly.

The little one (who has taken his fill, and now flown at his leisure), would flee, too, if he heard the alarm. But he doesn’t because there is no adult to sound it. He would if I came suddenly out the door: he’d flap off in wild agitation. But for the moment my body language is lost on him. He isn’t looking for it.

He will learn, as he grows, from obedience. Eventually the penny will drop for him; all the pennies — why the elders do as they do. And later, how to sound the various alarms, when he has his own hatchlings.

A liberal or other evolutionist would say the little one is smarter. By ignoring my movements, he got his fill. An adult, landing solo, would have taken one seed, to eat elsewhere. Then perhaps returned, for one more. He would do this from his mature calculation of the risks and benefits.

The old should learn from the young, the liberal would say, the way they do in Ireland. The birds should have a debate, and pass legislation, henceforth to ignore the peril. And then they can all eat, until they are very fat.

But no, my children, preserve the ancient ways.

You do not know the buzzard, which also alights sometimes on my balconata railing. You only know from trust the language of the elders; that you must intently listen, and obey.

For the language of alarm among these finches is complex, and crisp, but subtle. Humbly, they must learn.

When I move, inside the window, they fly off as one flock, all in the same direction. But as the buzzard is spied approaching, they fly off every which way. This is not mere panic. By doing so they confuse him, and provide such a choice of targets, that he must waste the moment in deciding which to pursue. They’ll be each under cover by the time he can react.

And the buzzard knows that, too. He merely lands on the rail, conserving his great dignity, as if nabbing a juicy morsel of finch-flesh were the farthest thing from his mind. For he is a proud animal, who’d rather starve than be made a fool of. He won’t give my tiny finches the sweet satisfaction of being chased, and getting away.

My beloved finches (and finchesses) know the game; they know the difference between The Monster and The Buzzard. From joyful play and long practice they know their signals, which are old and wise.