The Secret of Happy Finches

Local resident Theodore Rushton, reflecting on SMEEC lecturer, Tuul Sepp

To err is human, To purr, feline. – – Robert Byrne

“A young doctor means a new graveyard,” according to an old German proverb. Likewise, think of a new idea as being rife with errors large and small that otherwise or wistful will shape with new ideas to improve old habits.

New ideas also produce new errors – which tend to die fast in the “graveyard” of good intentions. The electric light was once a brilliant idea; but, think of how many types of lightbulbs were invented, glowed brilliant for a while, and were since discarded along the way. In my lifetime, the world has gone from incandescent to fluorescent to LED lights. What’s next? Perhaps the problem of too much light? In today’s world, the abundance of artificial light (which worldwide is increasing by two percent per year as less-developed societies get electricity) is rapidly becoming a problem.

In nature, house finches (with a typical weight of about 20 grams, just over half an ounce) are a fine example. A research project by Dr. Tuul Sepp at Arizona State University is researching whether these birds do better in a modern urban setting – an initial conclusion is the birds do better on the ASU campus than in the “nature preserve” of South Mountain Park.

Like many ASU males, ASU house finches are often colorful examples of male beauty. Males literally glow in their brilliant scarlet and gold masculinity. Females love colorful displays such as modern females who are attracted to the bright gold colors of a winning ASU Sun Devil team. Bright colors attracts the drab-brown females.

Dr. Sepp knows this because she’s an expert on house-finch poop. She and her student assistants – in addition to trapping, weighing, measuring and banding finches – collect and study finch poop. (If you want to be a brilliant doctoral student in today’s cutting-edge science, this is the type of research that’s essential – detailed study of realities such as bird poop; keep that in mind the next time you see a pigeon making a deposit on your car.)

As every woman who’s been a mother knows, poop is important – unless, of course, she ignores the reality of used diapers. If poop from “poopy pants” doesn’t look normal, it’s time to call the doctor. Many adults today, if they realized the importance mothers give to poop when their children are very young, might now feel vastly less self-important.

Anyway, this essay is about house finches, not poop. In the laboratories at ASU, house finch poop is examined in detail to determine its fat content. It’s a measure of determining the bird’s basic health; less fat in the poop indicates more effective digestion of fats – thus, good health. Birds that efficiently metabolize fats develop the most glamorous and bright colors. Bright red colors attract finicky female finches to the most glamorous and healthy males.

Irrelevant? It’s how nature operates.

Another study, in the current issue of “Science Magazine,” indicates passenger pigeons had a very limited genomic range. They were noted for their massive flocks of millions of birds, and, thus, were an easy crop to harvest for a dining delicacy. But, with a limited genomic diversity, the flocks were being decimated by hunters. Birds didn’t abandon their flocks even as they were being slaughtered; they were loyal to the end. Had the usual 10 percent of genetic diversity flown off to establish new flocks beyond the range of the guns, we might now have passenger pigeons spread across America instead of current scroungers such as Collard Doves. It’s nature’s way of survival – knowing when to abandon a dumb idea.

Nature, it seems, demands diversity for survival and success. Specialization may produce brief stunning success, but it’s doomed to failure and collapse. Perhaps it explains the fate of Neanderthals as too well-adapted to the Ice Age to survive the subsequent global warming.

Faced now with current global warming, what percentage of modern populations will survive?