Saturday, January 21, 2017

Harold the House Finch
Margaret S. Hamilton


One dark and frigid December night, a neighbor dropped off a plate of luscious, fresh-from-the-pan potato latkes.  As I opened the front door, a male house finch left his snug confines in the balsam wreath, and flew inside.
We heard a chirp, looked everywhere, and finally found Harold clinging to the chandelier in the two-story entrance hall, staring down at us. I quickly shut the bedroom doors. Brandishing a ceiling fan duster on a telescoping pole, I attempted to drive the finch down to the open front door. My standard poodles assisted, snapping and lunging when Harold perched on the bannister within their reach.

photo: Jim Jackson

Harold refused to fly downwards. Postponing another try until morning, we ate the latkes and left him perched on the window frame over the front door.
“Chir-up! Chir-up!” Harold was a late riser, only fluttering to life around nine in the morning. He spent the next day zooming around the hall, steadfastly refusing to fly out the front door.
By the second night, Harold was tired, not having consumed seed or water for over twenty-four hours. I watched him fly laps around the hall, growing slower with each circuit. He perched on a picture frame at the top of the stairs, puffed out his feathers, and sank into slumber. I herded the dogs into the bedroom and shut the door, sure that Harold would succumb overnight.
The next morning, Harold revived and returned to flying laps. My scientist husband and I devised a new scenario: lacking a butterfly or bird net, we would corner Harold in the upstairs hall bathroom. With no window, we would have to trap him in a container before transporting him outside.
Using the telescoping fan cleaner, we chased Harold down the hall and into the bathroom. He was very pleased with his new digs, the bathroom easily ten degrees warmer than the hall, with a convenient perch on the lighting fixture over the sink. A countertop that could accommodate bowls of seed and water, should we decide to feed him.


We nudged Harold into a cardboard box, and slapped down the lid. My husband scurried downstairs and out the front door to a nearby pine tree. When he lifted the lid, Harold was gone.
“Chir-up! Chir-up!” Harold had managed to climb back out of the box and was still in the bathroom, admiring himself in the mirror.
We gave it another try, prying Harold’s feet off the edge of the box, one toe at a time, and dumping him inside. Another trip outside to the pine tree, where Harold emerged from the box, cheeped appreciatively, and immediately flew to the backyard feeder, where he stayed for twenty minutes, stuffing his beak with sunflower seeds.
Harold is still around the yard, chirping at me when I go out to refill the bird feeders. He and the missus will build a nest and lay eggs by March, getting an early start on the two or three clutches house finches produce every year. I’m sure he hasn’t forgotten the warm, dry front hall.

photo: Jim Jackson

Excitement over, I returned to contemplating my writing goals for 2017. Am I too much like Harold, mired in my usual close third person point of view, writing about the same characters, never straying from the present to explore other time periods? Am I flying high in aimless circles, instead of zooming down and out the door?
When will I take a chance, seize the opportunity, fly into a bathroom, and discover what happens next?
Readers, have you had a close encounter with a wild animal in your home? Did you learn something about your life or writing?










  1. When I banded birds, they would sometimes escape while we were taking their measurements. Our procedure was to turn off all the lights and close the blinds to the windows. We’d open the door to the outside, but that rarely worked. The birdies would often fly around for a while and then eventually light. Next came the magician’s trick: oh, little birdie look at my left hand over here; meanwhile the right hand would grab the bird, capturing the neck between the pointer and middle fingers. We’d finish our measurements and then send the bird on its way.

    Were the birds traumatized by this process? Some birds like robins are very nervous and you hold your breath hoping nothing bad happens. Others are more sanguine with trading food for occasional minor abuse. We had one black-capped chickadee that over a number of years we caught over fifty times!

    And -- consider the story Harold is spinning for his house finch friends. . . "There I was, minding my own business, when ... "

    ~ Jim

  2. We live in a cedar-shingled house and have frequent encounters with a woodpecker. It drive us mad, and I could never laugh at a Woody Woodpecker cartoon again. For some reason it would begin pecking at the wood outside our house just over our bed at ungodly hours. We tried everything, but nothing seemed to work. The woodpecker's attention ended up costing us a fortune in wood trim replacement. Eventually the woodpecker found a new target and only stops by occasionally to let us know that he's still in the neighborhood.

  3. A bird got into the house when my son was an infant. He was asleep in his crib upstairs in his bedroom. Of course, that's where the bird flew. Luckily, my husband was home and shooed it downstairs. I opened the front door and much to our amazement, it flew out. All of our thrashing about happened while our son slept. He never awoke.

    Just this year at our beach house--a finch peered in at us through a sliding-glass door on the third-story. We couldn't open the door. He was there for about a half hour--persistent in his attempt to gain entry and pecked at the door. He finally left, but for a while, every time we opened the door, we expected him to be there and fly in.

    Since we are up so high, I often see birds. About a month ago, an egret flew by. Being so high enabled me to get a good look at how they tuck their long legs under them while flying. It looked uncomfortable actually. But the bird circled a tree and spotted a bare branch to land on. He unfolded his legs to grab onto the branch, but miscalculated, stumbled when he didn't touch the branch, and regained flight after realizing he'd missed. I noticed he looked around embarrassed, as if he wondered if anyone witnessed his blunder. Must have been old age diminishing depth perception. I laughed, but also felt his pain.

  4. We live in the woods, and once in a while encounter wildlife that has somehow entered. Worst was a raccoon that tried to get in through the basement window (that's a good reason to keep a gun in the house)It was a very high rabies year.

    Second worst was the copperhead one of our dogs picked up and proudly brought to show off. Fortunately, he had grabbed it right behind the head, and it couldn't reach him to bite. But how could we make the dog let it go without anyone getting bitten? Fortunately, the dog was an uber-obedient Rottweiler who had a "drop it" command to put things down. We put a leash on him, which alerted him to the fact that we expected him to go with us, took him to the middle of the road, told him "drop it" at the same time we tugged on the leash and ran away. He did drop it and hurried to come with us. The snake slithered into the woods.

    Next was the bat in the dining room. I was working a four to midnight shift (my least favorite.) When my husband, a city boy born and bred, saw the bat, he told my daughter to call the factory to tell me there was an emergency at home and I had to come. She knew that, as the only woman on the shift, I was already being teased quite a bit, and telling my foreman I had to come home to deal with a bat because the rest of the family couldn't take care of it would only make things worse. Eventually they got the bat outside, but as soon as they did, one of our cats caught it and ate it.

  5. When I lived in an old house in North Carolina, a squirrel fell down an old coal fireplace into the living room. He (or she) was much quicker than I was. I closed off what I could, left the front door open and clumped around while he darted around. Eventually he used the open door to escape, leaving behind sooty paw prints.

  6. Oh, that is adorable--note to those who, like me, tweet the story, there is no punctuation after the blog name and before the blog title, so what I saw quickly zip by was "Writers Who Kill The House Finch." We could be starting an entirely new group.

    Most of our animals who came to stay were cats who became pets eventually. Of course, having spent so many years in the country, many others were of a less desirable variety that did require trapping--mice, raccoons, rats, possum, and the like. Except for some of the mice who fell casualty to the cats, we were always able to get them in Hav-A-Heart traps and release them. Most of the mammals arrived in our home in Maine - and there has never been a recorded case of rabies in our county so that alleviated the major fear and encouraged us to trap. No lessons, but some amusing stories. A cat coming into my office and dropping a live mouse in my lap. He was so proud, I struggled not to make a sudden move while I tried to figure out how to make him feel praised and still get the danged thing out the door without getting bitten.

  7. I live in an old farm house, so there have been various wild animals who have managed to get in. I've had several bats come in and fly around upstairs especially in my bedroom. I closed the door and got a towel, and tossed it over it and released it outside. Another time I got a fishing net and caught it.

    Then there was the time a small red squirrel made its home in the attic area I had before my son added up making two full sized room and a bathroom. But until that time, I lived with the little fellow that I never saw, but only heard him between my bedroom floor/and the library ceiling. Because I only heard him in the daytime, I knew it wasn't a rat. I pretty much ignored him until I started finding nuts in the shoes in my closet, but what really had me doing something about it was when I found a nut under my pillow. I set a Have-a-Heart trap, but that didn't work, so even though I felt sad to do it (people warned me it could choose the electric wires in the walls and start a fire) I put out rat poison.

    Then there were the baby possums. Apparently, a mother possum got in through a tear in the
    screen in the cellar window over a freezer. I only found that out when a furnace man came
    and identified the horrible smell in my basement - a dead young possom. I'd set the trap
    because I thought I might have a rat in the house - I didn't. And then after I got rid of
    that, I found out why my two cats seemed to be eating far more food than they ever had before when I opened the cellar door where I keep the cat food on the landing where my dog
    won't bother it. There were two young possums on the steps. Apparently, when the mother
    got out of the hole on the screen over the cellar window, they couldn't reach high enough
    to leave, too. So I set mey Have-a-Heart trap and caught each of them, one at a time, and
    released them.

    There have been snakes a few times both in my current house and the one before, but never
    poisonous ones. Because I'm not afraid of snakes, usually I was able to catch them and
    release them, too, but mostly because a part of my basement is a dirt crawl space, they
    usually got on their own and after I had all the open spots in my basement sealed, I haven't had them anymore.

  8. Jim, we tried turning off the lights and opening the front door, with no luck. I'll add bird banding to my bucket list. Our chickadees are so "friendly" that they peck at the kitchen window and scold me when the feeder is empty.

    Elaine, I love your egret story! Every spring I'm plagued by house wrens trying to nest in the garage. The house finches know better, and build their nests under the deck.

    Kathleen, I'm appalled by your copperhead story. We had copperheads in Atlanta, but thankfully, the dogs never caught them. I encountered baby copperheads near the house. They looked like a pine needle until they coiled up and hissed.

    Warren, you were lucky to get rid of the squirrel.

    Kait, I agree on the prey. Over the years, my poodles have nailed chipmunks and mice and brought the carcasses to me.

    Gloria, I've never had possums in the house. What a mess for you!

    Thanks for commenting and to Jim for providing the excellent finch photos.

  9. I enjoyed this post! I am inspired by my animals all the time. I have four horses and they keep me laughing, sane, and focused on my writing goals. Without them, I would be a mess!

  10. What a fantastic story, and how well you describe the encounter! Our only encounters with wildlife have been with the squirrels that roam around the backyard and scamper up and down the magnolia tree. My husband's been sharing sunflower seeds and my walnuts with them, so they're friendly enough to want to come right inside!