Finches and Falcons

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Photo: Alan Vernon/flickr

A hopeful sign of spring occurs when house finches and prairie falcons appear near our northwest Calgary home, as they did in March.

Nature gives us many spiritual indicators, and I was reminded of that with the recent arrival of these two rather opposite avian messengers. My partner, Marlene, drew our attention to their distinct birdcalls even though winter snow was still lying abundantly on our front yard.

Both birds were proclaiming that warmer weather lies ahead! While this welcome message was jointly conveyed, key features separated these intriguing late-winter guests from each other. I moved into reflective mode and began to compare, contrast and combine—helping me explore a little more deeply into life’s mysteries and how humans themselves interrelate.

House finches are exquisite, colourful little birds that can be observed all across the southern regions of Canada. Their friendly and appealing song is a warble lasting three seconds with a final, usually rising note. Their music adds character and melody to our neighbourhoods.

Prairie falcons are much more familiar to those living in the southern plains of Western Canada. Their cries are shrill and threatening, not only to smaller songbirds but even to humans. They nest along steep cliffs, but also in large trees and higher locations of our cities. They use “power posturing” and select the tallest places to convey their need to dominate.

While male finches are an attractive red and appeal to the eyes, both falcon genders are lacklustre grey in colour and blend easily into the environment. Finches seem to want nothing more than to generously fill the morning air with joyful song, while falcons convey a distinct adversarial and combative stance that suggests they are itching for a fight.

First impressions of each bird are quickly made. We form an immediate bias toward finches and consider them likeable and charming, while falcons are denigrated with descriptions like “antagonistic” and “rather repulsive.”

It takes some time and reflection to appreciate that both birds are committed to survival and the perpetuation of their species. That makes the finch eager to find wholesome cereal nourishment and a feel-good relationship, while the falcon uses force and fear to satisfy natural needs and urges.

First impressions often define the way we think about other humans and sentient beings, but they do not always result in the best impressions. We will always be inclined to favour some experience over others, but experience can also teach us that “things are not always the way they appear.”

All nature has a story to tell, and persons who seek a mature spirituality will be hesitant to prejudge a situation. I am by nature inclined to love the songbird and resent the noisy predator. But nature is also a process of survival and procreation, and through all that, life can be both beautiful and harsh.

At least there is one message from our feathered friends that we can now celebrate. Spring is here.

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Wayne Holst
Wayne A. Holst was a Lutheran pastor (ELCIC) for 25 years. He taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary for a quarter century and co-ordinates adult spiritual development at St. David’s United Church, Calgary.

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