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Prime Time | You would think a biologist would know

Prime Time|You would think a biologist would know better

By Evan Hazard

When we came to Bemidji in 1958, one of the in-town dicky birds we encountered was the purple finch (Carpodacus purpureus).

The males are not purple: Peterson says "dull rose red." The females are a nondescript brown with streaked fronts. We'd seen purple finches before, back East.

In summer they range from eastern Canada, New England and the northern Appalachians across the northern Great Lakes, northern Minnesota and northern North Dakota into British Columbia and down into western Washington, Oregon and California. In winter, many migrate into the middle and southern states, west as far as the eastern Dakotas through east Texas. Those in the Pacific Coast states largely stay put.

Two Carpodacus finches are native out West, Cassin's finch (Carpodacus cassinii) and the house finch (Carpodacus mexicanus). Their ranges overlap broadly from the Rockies west from southernmost Canada to northern Mexico, but Cassin's doesn't range all the way to the coast itself.

As I wrote here in January 2007, a pet dealer on New York's Long Island, learning in 1940 that his captive house finches were illegal, released them. The 1980 eastern Peterson's field guide maps them as "spreading explosively" to southeasternmost Canada, northern Georgia and Mississippi and Illinois. They were not in Bemidji in '58, but they were by the '90s. The 2008 oversized Peterson's reviewed here last February maps them as a resident (non-migratory) species from coast to coast and from southernmost Canada well into Mexico. It also lists them as "common" and purple finches as "uncommon."

As reported in January '07, I removed an old nest from behind our front entry light when we moved to The Meadows in fall '05, and a house finch pair nested there and raised three clutches in '06.

"I removed the first two nests after the young fledged. We saw several adults in the area later on; some were in subadult plumage and may have been young of 'our' pair."

In '07, a pair nested there, I cleaned that nest out and they raised a second brood. In '08, a pair raised a clutch, I cleaned that nest out, and they didn't come back. In summers of '09, '10, and '11, nobody nested there.

Had Bemidji's house finch population dropped? No, they were if anything more abundant in '09-'11. But the spruces planted on The Meadows' berm north of us had grown from 6-foot trees set well apart to a solid row of 20-foot trees, and lots of house finches nested there. And, in May 2012, nesting material began to appear behind the lamp again.

About here, my biologist colleagues are muttering, "How is he removing those nests? Shouldn't Evan be more careful?"

Yes, I should have been, and this time my luck ran out. The young fledged about June 25, and on June 29, a Friday, I took the nest down. Young birds deposit a lot of rich fertilizer below the nest and on the nest rim, so I carried the nest around the house and tossed it on the lawn, figuring a riding mower would spread it. And no, I did not think to wash up afterwards.

Saturday morning I woke up itching. I had picked up a load of bird mites.

Straight USP lanolin took care of the bites, and some measures were clear. All clothes I'd worn since handling the nest went into the washer, as well as any clothes I wore as new bites showed up. That plus the dryer would cook any. Ditto the sheets and pillow cases.

Where were the bites? Well, mites like warm, secure places: groin, armpits, under waistbands and such, but they wander. A few bites appeared on upper arms, shoulders and legs. You rarely see these guys; they are tiny. There were no fresh bites after two weeks. According to an Iowa State site,, "Bird mites can bite humans but are not a health threat."

Sunday after church I decided to check with a pharmacist. (Several pharmacies are open Sunday, but the one I patronize most is not.) We'll call the pharmacist "Pat." Pat didn't have anything to recommend, but Pat should search the Web to clear up some misconceptions.

Anyway, if you have bird nests to get rid of, listen up. Wear gloves and clothes you can launder immediately, and avoid handling the nests and the crud around them. Use tools rather than hands, clean the tools afterwards, and shower. A few mites may get through, but probably not as many as I invited aboard.

EVAN HAZARD, a retired BSU biology professor, also writes "Northland Stargazing" the fourth Friday of each month.