Not hard to imagine a common ancestor of American and European goldfinches managed to make the hazardous passage across the Atlantic to found a colony on the other side that evolved different colors over time. A single member of the European species was recorded here in 1999, although possibly released or escaped from captivity.
They are common, with similar habits and belong to the same genus. But of the pair the American deserves the name as breeding males are cloaked in canary yellow and sooty black, whereas Europeans have only a yellow flash on the wings. Both delight the eyes, twittering with apparent joy as they pluck seeds from flower heads, deserving the collective noun, a charm of goldfinches.
I confess to be an inveterate obituary hawk. The ‘vet’ bit in inveterate is telling as my compulsion comes with the territory of the latter half of life.
I don’t scour obituary columns for names I know or like or love, or even for people whose behavior I despise, for (the bell) “it tolls for thee”. Obituaries pack the history of a whole life into a tiny capsule and occasionally one captures my attention so vividly I hunger to know more and feel sad to miss the subject’s acquaintance.
I never met Sunderlal Bahuguna and didn’t even know his name until he died from covid-19 on May 21, 2021, at the age of 94. What drew me to his story by Hridayesh Joshi, a Mongabay journalist who knew him, was the transparent goodness of a life dedicated to caring for an environment that his people in the Himalayan foothills loved and needed to thrive.
As a bright and educated Indian, he gave up a potential career in parliamentary politics to serve his home district. As an early environmentalist he had a great impact nationally, even internationally, yet acclaim didn’t go to his head. He remained modest and credited much of his achievement to his wife.
As a young man he became a devout follower of Mahatma Gandhi, which says much about his character and lifestyle. He went on long marches, fasted to make public protest, fought against ‘untouchability’, and practiced non-violent activism against political and commercial oppressors of his people and the forest.
For many years he led the Chipko movement against logging companies whose depredations threatened fragile ecosystems around local communities. He organized protests against the Tehri Dam project (largest in India) for displacing of thousands of people from homes and affecting a watershed feeding the sacred Ganges.
The Chipko movement began in the 1970s in the hills of Uttarakhand, a famous destination for Hindu pilgrims and site of the 1968 Beatles Ashram. It started when local women opposed loggers by literally hugging trees (Chipko=hugging). The expression tree-hugger is often pejorative in the West, but only ignorance of its solemn history covers that shame.
Three centuries ago, hundreds of Bishnoi people, most of them women, obstinately resisted the felling of trees in their district to clear land for a new palace. They were massacred. In the end, the maharaja relented and canceled the project. The martyrs helped to inspire a modern movement of forest guardians that wins more sympathy by the year.
In his later years, Bahuguna-ji looked like a brown Santa Claus, a genial figure of gentle temperament. He practiced what he preached by living simply and sustainably, even giving up a rice diet because paddy fields use a lot of water.
We may wonder how a modest exterior with little worldly ambition can make a difference today, though he didn’t achieve all his goals (the Tehri Dam). But he had a facility for mingling care for human welfare with respect for what science knows, driven by a great fire of determination in his heart.
Early colonists in North America who felt homesick called some of the birds they saw by the names of those they grew up with 3,000 miles away—blackbirds, goldfinches, robins, et cetera—although not necessarily related and have different habits and songs.
Take, for example, the American Robin. It belongs to the thrush family whereas robins across the Pond are insectivores, more closely related to the nightingale (both formerly classified as thrushes). It’s a bigger bird than the European and has an orange breast instead of red (hence in Germany Rotkehlchen, France rouge-gorge, and Britain robin redbreast). Both are fairly trusting of humans and abundant in gardens and parks. In Britain, the robin became associated with Christmas, often featuring on greeting cards (see Christmas Birds in Archive for December 2013).