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Goldfinches, fall arrivals, and Halloween

I watched three goldfinches feeding on a tube feeder in our backyard a few days ago. If any of the three were adult males, they had exchanged their brilliant yellow garb of summer for muted shades of olive green. The three looked very much alike, and even in their fall plumes, it was easy to recognize them. It wasn't long before I realized that one of them was a young bird, a juvenile that was acting like a kid.

At first, the three birds were perched individually on feeding ports. But it didn't take long for two of the three to fly up and settle together on the top of the metal stand that the feeder hangs on. Suddenly, one of the birds was fluttering its wings and begging for a free meal from the other. And the parent bird was feeding it! Who knew it changed perches with a mouthful of seeds?

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Goldfinches generally nest a little later in the summer than most songbirds. The materials they prefer to use in their nest construction — thistle and milkweed fibers — do not mature until June or July. As a result, the young goldfinches get a later start and are still "growing up" when most other juvenile songbirds have become independent. In fact, many have already headed south to winter in warmer climates.

I have heard quite a few reports of familiar winter backyard residents returning to our neighborhoods. Although they haven't appeared on our property yet — at least not around the feeders — white-throated sparrows and juncos (sometimes called snow birds) have arrived in our region. I look forward to greeting them with black oil sunflower seed and fresh water after their long southward journeys from northern territories.

Goblins and ghosts, witches on broomsticks, big creepy spiders, winged bats that flutter through the darkness of the night sky, black cats and jack-o-lanterns, scarecrows and skeletons, ravens and crows. Add crisp autumn air, the warm colors of the fall landscape, and a haunted hayride. Suddenly, it is Oct. 31 and Halloween!

Halloween — historically a celebration about the end of the light seasons and, as daylight grows shorter, the beginning of the dark ones — has always been filled with folklore and mysterious symbolism. Many creatures, including cats, bats, spiders, owls, and large black birds seem to possess magical powers and supernatural qualities — most especially on Halloween. Although black cats are believed by many to be symbols of bad fortune, in many parts of the world they are considered a sign of good luck.

There have been many superstitions about black birds — particularly crows and ravens — that have promoted fear of these large birds. They have often been associated with the dark side of life. Have you heard that a crow on the roof of one's house predicts death or misfortune to those who live within? And if it sits on the church steeple, the entire community is doomed? On the other hand, in some ancient cultures ravens and crows have been held in high regard and given superhuman powers.

Spiders are pretty creepy critters to a lot of people. And yet, some would say that because of their ability to weave intricate webs, they have mystical energy — that the spinning of their webs is a natural representation of the human journey or the cycle of life.

In the old days, the celebration of Halloween included large bonfires that attracted mosquitoes and moths — and consequently bats. Bats are nocturnal creatures that fly about in the darkness as they hunt for their dinner. If mosquitoes and moths are on the menu, they are all about it!

If you are fearful of bats, consider this statement that I found on the website of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources:

"Try thinking of them as furry purple martins clearing the night skies of insects that damage crops and gardens and spread diseases. Bats are the major predator performing this ecological miracle during the night shift. Just one bat can eat over a thousand insects each night."

Whether you are making scarecrows, carving pumpkins, or partying in or out of costume, have a fun Halloween. And keep an eye out for the safety of the trick-or-treating goblins that are likely to be looking for some goodies on Saturday — Halloween night.

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