The flutter of Thanksgiving

Each November, as if they're reading the same airline schedules, goldfinches and Thanksgiving arrive at my doorstep about the same time.

The coincidence is so common that I have come to think of the goldfinch, not the gobbler, as the holiday's official bird.

Granted, I'll be having my share of turkey and dressing after we bow our heads over the holiday table this year. But it will be the goldfinch, a canary-yellow bird that migrates to my feeder each fall, who represents for me an icon of what giving thanks is all about.

Goldfinches have taught me much about the nature of gratitude, and their example lingers long after the last cranberry sauce has vanished from the fridge.

If you want an official mascot for a holiday feast, you can do no better than a goldfinch – a tiny windup toy of a bird who, despite its diminutive size, has the appetite of a lion.

Or so I learned many autumns ago, when someone suggested that I could lure goldfinches to my bird feeders by stocking them with sunflower hearts. Put out this favored delicacy, I was told, and hordes of American goldfinches would soon be eating me out of house and home.

I had my doubts. In several years of backyard birding, I hadn't spotted a single goldfinch – except in my "Peterson Field Guide," which succinctly describes the bird as "a small finch with deeply undulating flight."

Goldfinches live year-round in some parts of the country, but around my Louisiana home, they linger only during late fall and winter. Their plumage then is dull yellow-olive, with just a glimmer of gold here and there. But as winter warms into spring, the male will brighten to saffron yellow, his costume suggesting a paper lantern lighted by the emerging sun.

While Peterson summarizes the goldfinch with the matter-of-fact style of a detective issuing a police bulletin, the bird had, by eluding me, become the stuff of fairy tales. The prospect of a goldfinch in my yard seemed quite as unlikely as spotting a unicorn among the rosebushes.

Even so, I filled my tube feeders with hulled sunflower seed. Nothing happened for a week or two. Then one morning, as I was lugging sacks of groceries from the car into the house for Thanksgiving dinner, a glint of gold caught the corner of my eye, as though it were a wedding band winking from a jeweler's window.

There, at the feeder, darting up and down the perches as quickly as a bobbin on a sewing machine, was a male goldfinch – the first emissary of what would eventually become a colony of canarylike wonders.

Taking a cue from Rumpelstiltskin, the mythical imp who extorted high tribute to manufacture gold, my newfound visitors demanded increasing rations of sunflower hearts as payment for their presence. In coming weeks, the birdseed bill would rival my own food bill.

Hauling bags of seed to the feeders each autumn in a little red wagon, I'm tempted to congratulate myself on my skill and diligence in drawing goldfinches to my yard.

But I know that the goldfinches also arrive because there are neighborhood trees to host their stay.

When they come each Thanksgiving, the goldfinches are answering a voice larger than mine.

Too often, gratitude is an exercise in self-congratulation. We reflect on the jobs we have, the cars we drive, and the houses we own, as if we – and we alone – earned them. But as the coming of the goldfinches reminds me each Thanksgiving, the blessings I enjoy depend on a provident alignment of circumstances over which I have little control.

I have each autumn's goldfinches to thank for that liberating lesson. Which is why, some time between the turkey and dressing and the pumpkin pie, I'll haul a little red wagon to my backyard feeders and give a few friends a Thanksgiving feast of their own.

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