One day I watched my father from high up in the branches of the old Rowan tree that grew close to our house. He was walking down the creamery road, his brown felt hat pushed back on his head and I could hear him whistling. As he neared our house I saw that he was swinging something big in his left hand. I clambered down the tree, swung from the lowest branch, dropped to the ground and ran to meet him.
“Dad, what’s that?”
“This,” he said as he held it aloft, “is a cage for a Goldfinch.”
“What’s a Goldfinch?”
“It’s a small, beautiful songbird,” he replied.
“But we don’t have any birds,” I reminded him.
“No we don’t,” he smiled and added, but we will tomorrow.
“Tonight we must prepare his new home.”
That meant a project!
He handed me the cage and walked over to the tree, reached up and selected three small, thin branches and snapped them off. Then he carefully removed the leaves and said,
“These will be perfect, just what we need!”
He removed a bunch of Mistletoe that was growing around a large branch and put it in his pocket. I ran inside and got the toolbox from the bottom shelf of the dresser and set in on the floor beside the table in readiness. He spread some newspaper and placed the birdcage on the table. The cage looked perfect to me but my father said,
“See, there are no perches.”
“What are perches for?”
“They are where he will sit, look, I’ll show you.”
He picked up one length of Rowan twig and measured the space between the bars of the cage. Then he marked the length on the rod with a pencil. With his small saw he cut it to size and made a notch on either end then slid the rod through the bars. He did the same thing with two more rods.
“Now Mr. Goldfinch can sit wherever he wishes,” he laughed.
Next, he attached two small square containers, one on each side of the cage, close to a perch.
“These are for his seed and water.”
The third perch he placed higher up in the cage, about half way. He took the mistletoe from his pocket then and started to mash it until it became a sticky liquid. As he poured it into a small glass jar I asked him what it was for.
“You will see tomorrow,” was his reply.
I hardly slept at all that night thinking about the birdcage and wondered what a Goldfinch might look like. I was up early the next morning and found my father sitting at the kitchen table. He was sipping tea from his large mug and had a pile of buttered toast in front of him.
“Do you want some tea?”
“Yes, I do,” I answered, yawning.
“Are we going for Mr. Goldfinch now”? I asked, impatiently.
“Yes we are, as soon as you finish your breakfast.”
While I was finishing the last slice of toast, I noticed him put two silver bottle caps in his pocket. I thought that it was a strange thing to do, but said nothing. I grabbed my coat from the rack in the hall and ran outside to wait for him. My father had a small shoe box under his arm as he stepped outside. He handed it to me saying,
“Don’t drop it!”
As I looked I noticed it had lots of holes.
“Those are air holes, so he can breathe.
“I won’t drop it dad,” I answered, holding it tightly.
“When we get to the right place we must be very quiet and still, birds are easily scared.”
It was a mild morning in July and as we walked along the road I looked forward to the adventure. Crossing the low stone bridge that spanned the small gurgling stream, I heard something rustling in the hedgerow. My father heard it too and motioned me to stop. We stood perfectly still for several minutes and watched as a small, crafty looking, bright red Fox poked his head out of the bushes. Sniffing the air, he emerged stealthily, then, trotted across the road with his bushy tail following behind. A pair of startled blackbirds took flight from a whitethorn tree and flew off noisily in the opposite direction. The fox stopped and looked sadly after the retreating birds as if thinking, “There goes breakfast.” Then, unhurried, he sauntered off to seek elsewhere. We walked on then and as we came near to the Mass rock my father stopped and said,
“This is the place, we will go in here.”
We were in front of a long stone wall that separated us from the fields. With one quick swing he placed me on top of the wall, climbed up next to me and dropped effortlessly on the other side. Another swing and I was instantly transported to that other magical world of nature with no humans in sight, except for me and my father. We walked across the grassy meadow and came to a small rocky outcrop near an apple orchard. On one side was a shallow pond where several Eider ducks quacked fussily, their chicks in tow. On the opposite side there grew a thicket of small trees and bushes, all in full leaf. Between the pond and the thicket there was a large group of purple colored, thorny flowers growing in wild profusion. I had never seen that type of plant before and asked my father what they were.
“Those are Thistles, Goldfinches love the seeds.”
“Is this the place?”
“Yes, this is the place.”
He walked over to a large rock beside the trees and with his back to it, sat down.
“Bring me the box.”
I handed him the box and slid down the rock and sat on the cool grass. He opened the box and took from it the small glass jar. He reached in his pocket and brought out a little brush. After putting the lid back on the box, he set the jar and the brush on top of it. Next from the inside pocket of his jacket he took out the two silver bottle caps.
“I’m going to make a whistle for Mr. Goldfinch.”
With that, he proceeded to bend and shape the bottle caps, twining them together, then, putting his creation to his lips, he blew on it softly. The sound it made reminded me of a bird whistling. After some fine tuning he handed it to me saying,
“Now, you try.”
He showed me how to hold it and where to place my tongue just right. When I blew on it, it really sounded like a bird.
He got up, went over to a small tree which was closest to the thistle flowers and removed the leaves from several small branches. With the brush, he smeared the adhesive on them then came back behind the rock and sat down. He put the bottle caps to his lips and started mimicking bird calls. As he was doing this he pointed to the thistle patch and whispered, “Watch closely. ”I couldn’t contain my excitement when, a few minutes later, three colorful birds lit on the thistle plants. They were twittering loudly answering my father’s calls. He then tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to the small tree and whispered, “Look!”
He stopped calling then and I held my breath as two more landed on the sticky branches. My father was up in a flash and running to the tree.
“Bring the box,” he said excitedly.
When I reached the tree he had already snapped the branches holding the two birds and handed one to me.
“Cover him with your hand so he won’t be scared.”
I cupped my hand around him gently and was surprised when he stopped struggling immediately. We went back to the rock and sat down, each holding a beautiful bird in our hands. With his free hand he took from his pocket a little bottle with a small brush attached to the cap. He held the bottle between his knees and unscrewed the cap. Then he gently applied the liquid to the birds’ feet and unglued them from the branch. He placed the bird in the box and put the lid back on. Then he did exactly the same with my one. He waited several minutes to allow the birds to settle down and then reached in and took one out. I could now see it up close as my father held it gently by its’ small feet. As it sat there on his finger I was awed by its tiny size, no more than two inches long, yet so perfect. It had black and gold wings and an ivory colored beak. Its head was black and it had a red mask all around its eyes.
“This is a male,” said my father, “We will keep him.”
He placed the bird back in the box and took the second one out. Looking closely at the bird he said,
“We must let this one go.”
“Why do we have to let him go?” I asked sadly
“Because this is a little female and she probably has a nest somewhere.”
Not wanting to give up I asked, “But how do you know it’s a female.”
“If you look really close you will see her red mask does not go all the way around her eyes. That’s how you know it’s a female. We must let her go as she may have chicks to feed.” Then handing her to me he said,
“Now, you let her go.”
I held her in my cupped hands and slowly opened them. At first she just sat there looking at me until my father leaned over and blew gently on her feathers. Then, in an instant she was airborne, her wings flashing black and gold as she circled us twice, then flew straight to the thistles. We walked home contented that day, with our singing friend in the shoebox.
“We will have to keep an eye on your mother’s cat from now on,” warned my father, laughing.
And I laughed too.
From "Don't Die with Regrets: Ireland and the Lessons my Father Taught Me."
For Sale at: http://www.amazon.com/dp/0615975860
Also for Sale:
The Journey: A Nomad Reflects.
The Goldfinch and symbolism:
Because the seeds of the thorny thistle plant are the Goldfinches favorite delicacy it has been linked to Christ’s passion and the crown of thorns. The Goldfinch appears in many renaissance artist’s works, most notably the Italian painter, Raphael. In Raphael’s painting ‘Madonna of the Goldfinch,’ painted in 1505-6, we see John the Baptist offering a Goldfinch to his cousin Jesus. This is interpreted as a warning to Jesus about what was to come.
In Barocci’s ‘Holy Family,’ John the Baptist holds a Goldfinch high, out of the reach of an inquisitive cat. The Goldfinch is seen as a symbol of endurance, fruitfulness, and persistence, and is considered a ‘saviour’ bird. It is also associated with Saint Jerome, and can be seen in many depictions of the Saint.