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When I first heard about it a few months ago, I couldn’t believe it. There are people who will take a pair of finches, put them in the same cage to fight, and place bets on who will win. We’ve all heard of dog-fighting, and cockfighting. The sports channels broadcast fights between humans in cages. But finches? Now I know they can be a little aggressive around the feeder, but who isn’t? I mean, it’s generally not a good idea to get between me and my morning coffee. And finches aren’t as bad as, say, house sparrows, who come to my feeders by the flockful and crowd out everyone else. And finches aren’t as ill-tempered as blue jays, who scold pretty much anybody, and even attack their own reflection in a window. But finches? Those delicate little things that flutter and twitter around my yard?

The first incident was in Connecticut. The latest one took place last week in Ashland, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston, where authorities raided a house and found 20 saffron finches, along with 20 illegal immigrants from Brazil, where this activity (I’m not going to call it a sport) originated. I should add that finch-fighting is also illegal in Brazil, but that hasn’t stopped the activity.

Apparently the male saffron finches are particularly aggressive, especially when aroused by a female.

According to a news report, a female is kept in a separate compartment. The males get riled up, and then they are released into the same cage, where they’ll attack each other, pecking each other’s legs off.

Whoever survives wins?

Finch fights are high stakes gambling, with a good fighter going for $1,000 or more. The birds are bred for aggressiveness, and owners will sharpen their beaks. Authorities say it’s gaining in popularity.

How can this be? What does it say about us?

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The silence of winter is over, broken by a lusty chirping that breaks out just as the first light starts to show on the horizon. Winter is never completely silent, of course. Crows will caw as they fly overhead. A jay will scream out a warning. And if you take the time to sit still in a quiet place, you’ll hear a variety of chips and chirps.

But none of these are songs. There’s nothing musical about them, not like the singing that’s starting up now. I’ve been trying to think of something that would express the feeling they convey. Happy? Hopeful? Optimistic? Forget it. Those are too trite, not to mention inadequate.

There is a tradition that birds begin to sing on St. Valentine’s Day to mark the start of the mating season. Even if it’s not strictly true, the singing certainly does begin around the middle of February.

It never fails to give me a lift, along with a list of things I keep meaning to do. Some years ago, I bought a set of tapes to help me to identify birds by their song. Once again, I’ve started listening, resolved to get better at it.

And then there’s my bird list. I’ve started one every year, at just about this time, for the past 20 years or so. I do pretty well for a couple of months. Then things come up. I get involved with something else. Pretty soon the year is up, and I have to start over.

I’m looking at the stack of them now. I’ve never been able put a hundred species on a single year’s list. My record seems to be 63 from 1998. That’s sort of embarassing. A lot of that’s record-keeping … I’ll see something, but then forget to record it. And then of course, I haven’t really been trying… I’ve got dozens of excuses.

That does it.

We’re on winter vacation this week. I’ve got my list for 2010 all set to go. Binoculars at the ready. Field guide permanently stored in my pack. My earlier tapes have been replaced by bird song identification CDs.

One Hundred or Bust for 2010!

I’ve been following the developments at Vermont Yankee with some interest, and I’m having a hard time figuring out just what’s happening. It hasn’t received much coverage in the mainstream media – none as far as I know, but I might have missed it. Here are the basics:

A month ago, some monitoring wells near the plant registered the presence of radioactive tritium in the groundwater. Company officials denied they had anything to do with it. Keep in mind this plant is in rural Vermont, surrounded by a few cows and bucolic countryside. Tritium doesn’t grow on trees.

The first theory was that possibly some of the radioactive stuff got into discharge pipes. The company denied (under oath, no less) that no such pipes existed.

OOPS! A week later they discovered that such pipes did exist, but still denied it could have come from there, and, in fact, some tests showed that maybe it didn’t come from those pipes after all.

More tests, and this time they showed the radioactivity registered to nine times the level they had registered the first time.

The numbers are a little esoteric, but bear with me.

In 2005, the National Academy of Sciences said that any exposure to stuff like tritium has the potential to cause cancer. The state of California set a limit of 400 picocuries per liter as a safety limit. Apparently not wanting to inconvenience the nuclear industry, the Environmental Protection Agency set their limit at 20,000 picocuries per liter.

The tests at Vermont Yankee this week came in at 775,000 picocuries per liter!

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s response?

Not to worry! There’s plenty of cushion built into those numbers. Those levels, according to one of their spokespeople, pose no threat to public health or the environment.

I’m glad they cleared that up, because now I feel a whole lot better.

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