or When Instinct Goes Awry
My friends, we are gathered here today to laugh at the foibles of youth. I don't know about you, but when I was young, I felt endlessly like the protagonist in a Victorian era British novel—the kind where the main characters spend most of the (very long) book doing embarrassing things while an all-knowing narrator tsks pityingly at them. (And somehow, I was certain, everyone else in real life was the all-knowing narrator.) Well, now it is our turn. We are the all-knowing ones, laughing (gently?) at the well-intentioned errors of the young in this "Tale of Two Fledglings."
A family of Lesser Goldfinches has recently found my thistle feeders (which deserves its own "Hooray!"). Even a couple of weeks ago, the fledglings would feed as a mutually supportive group, but as they've grown older they've become squabbly and aggressive. The least aggressive one in this family usually waits until all the others, which have been fighting for the best perches Keystone Kops-fashion, have been spooked by some spurious danger (usually me) and flown off, and then enjoys having the feeder all to herself. (Query: Who's actually the sensible one here?) This quiet, unassuming, well-fed finch is one of our protagonists.
The other is a newly-fledged black-chinned hummingbird. For the record, let it be stated that for most hummingbirds, the following equation is always in effect: "Bright = flower? = edible!" Hummingbirds love the warm colored flowers, especially red ones, but also pink, orange, and yellow. The emphasis seems to be on color; the hummingbird definition of "flower" is a little more nebulous. If you live anywhere in hummingbird territory and have ever worn a hot pink top outside on a summer day, you have probably had the experience of having a tiny bird hover in front of you wondering whether it has just struck the mother lode. (And nothing makes your own big, overwhelming project suddenly seem do-able like having a 2-inch hummingbird speculatively eying all 5'7" of you and planning its dinner menu.)
The other day, our little goldfinch was sitting at the feeder, having patiently outwaited all her siblings. Being a cautious sort, she wasn't actually facing the feeder but rather the wide, scary world, and her sunny golden chest was facing into the morning light, gleaming brightly and cheerfully. The young hummingbird flew by and, seeing this vivid yellow object, put The Hummingbird Equation into action. Much to the finch's consternation, the hummingbird hovered in front of her and tried to feed, poking her delicately with its long bill and "sipping."
What astonished me most was the odd level of understanding on the finch's part. She obviously wasn't frightened as she would have been by a predator; while she was clearly uncomfortable with being someone else's feeding station, she wasn't about to give up her own. Instead she shifted her feet unhappily on the perch and made odd little distress calls ("I'm fauna! I'm fauna! I'm fauna!").
The hummingbird drew back a bit and tilted its head in a "Well, that's unexpected" kind of way. But when you're young, you're used to things being unexpected and are more likely to chalk confusion up to inexperience than, say, to faulty judgment. Shaking off doubt (what would the finch know about it, after all?), the hummingbird approached to feed again, at which point the goldfinch just kind of lost it and started flapping its wings and darting its beak emphatically in the universal language of "Oy!" The hummingbird finally caught on, did a clear double-take, and high-tailed it away. (The goldfinch settled its feathers and returned to the thistle feeder.)
I've seen what I'm sure is this particular hummingbird again, always when the family of finches is feeding. It flies straight up to them and then suddenly looks like a cat caught in some foolishness: Who, me? I was just going to check out this... yeah, this bit of... Well, I'll just be going, then.
It makes human youth look so easy—at least when we were teens (unless our childhoods were unusual indeed) we never had to prove whether we were animal, mineral, or vegetable.