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House finches — business decision gone bad

One winter morning in the mid-1980s in Hattiesburg, I woke up to find my backyard full of folks armed with binoculars and cameras, all pointed at my house. Talk about your wake-up call. Sure, I had invited them, but I never dreamed they would actually show, especially in those numbers.

The group was the Hattiesburg Audubon Society, and they were there to document the arrival of a relatively non-descript bird — the house finch. The little birds were making their very first appearance in South Mississippi at that time, and the photo taken of a house finch in my feeder was one of the first photographic documentations in the area.

However, there was no excitement that day, because the story of the house finch was and is a sad one that continues to this day. And what’s to blame for this disaster? Entrepreneurship.

Feather-brained scheme

The house finch is a sparrow-sized bird that was indigenous only to the western U.S. and Canada. The female is rather unattractive in her brown striping, but the male has a wine-colored head, shoulders and chest, and warbles a pleasant song.

Like so many other birds, house finches found the Great Plains a barrier to coming east. A common sight in California, the house finch was unknown to those in New York. This was the natural order of things.

That would change, however, in the 1940s. Someone out west had a “brilliant” idea. Since the house finch is not native to the East Coast, and since the male has a splash of color and a nice song, why not cage them for sale in the east as pets? There, they could be marketed as “Hollywood Finches: The Birds of the Stars.”

So, house finches were crated and sent to New York. But the plan quickly unraveled. The caging of the house finches was an obvious violation of U.S. law, and enforcement officials soon got wind of the scheme. Learning that they were soon to have federal authorities knocking at their door, the organizers simply opened the cages and let the finches go.

And that was the end of this silly little saga, right? Wrong.

The house finch is nothing if not aggressive. Turned loose with no natural checks, their numbers exploded in mind-numbing fashion. By the late 1970s, they had made it to Mississippi. The first house finch was sighted in the Magnolia State in Starkville in January 1980.

And the population continues to grow. Currently, I have two pairs that come daily to my feeders in rural Rankin County. Every backyard birdfeeder I know has them. My mother has a nest-full of house finch eggs in her hanging fern at her home in Ridgeland. A male is singing every morning when I arrive at the MBJ in the heart of Jackson.

Just as with the house sparrow and European starling, two other very common introduced species, house finches are creating havoc among Mississippi’s native birds. There is only so much space and food, and, generally, if it comes down to a turf squabble, the house finch is going to win.

Do the math

In late April of this year, the biggest bird news perhaps in U.S. history made headlines all over the world — the ivory-billed woodpecker had been discovered. Not seen in the U.S. for 60-plus years and feared extinct, the stunning, hawk-sized woodpecker was found very close to home in Northeast Arkansas. It has not been spotted in Mississippi since the 1920s, but now birders and ornithologists can put it back on their list as possible.

The Arkansas birding community shouldn’t be the only one thrilled by this news. The ivory-billed woodpecker is garnering global interest, and the Hospitality State can expect a huge influx of nature enthusiasts with hearts full of joy and pockets full of money. We’re talking a major tourism boon here.

Eco-tourism is really in its infancy everywhere, including Mississippi. Officials are just now trying to get a feel for just how big eco-tourism is in terms of dollars. As John Woods points out in his regular MBJ column, one thing is for sure — it’s huge.

I think in many ways, environmentalists are their own worst enemy. Too many approach environment-protecting issues emotionally, flailing their arms about and talking loudly. And too many business leaders write them off as wacky.
I think environmentalists would be much better served to drop the histrionics and pick up a calculator. Play the numbers game. “You want to see the bottom line, Mr. Businessman? Okay, here it is in dollars and cents.”

And to the business community, I would recommend taking a long look at the potential the environment has for bringing new money into Mississippi, a state rich in natural offerings and heritage. Kill the messenger (no, not literally), but heed the message. And at the same time, be aware that there is a responsibility here, and a seemingly innocuous business decision can have far-reaching implications.

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

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