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the pets of popes

A recent opinion piece by Frank Bruni in the New York Times pointed out the absurdity of the Pope’s recent castigation of childless pet owners: we are selfish and our lack of procreation diminishes our humanity. Whoa.

I am years past any outrage at the Catholic church, especially on the topic of reproduction. However, something did catch my eye: Bruni’s description of the many papal pets, in particular the tidbit that “Pope Pius XII had a pet goldfinch.” A goldfinch in Rome can only be a European Goldfinch, Carduelis carduelis. For about 20 years, I’ve been tracking this species as it has become established in the western Great Lakes. While a pope’s pet bird is hardly relevant to my research and no readily apparent way to work this fact into the paper I’m writing came to mind, I was still curious enough to learn more about this bit of avian trivia.

The Salon article Bruni linked to said Pope Pius XII (we’ll call him PP for short) rescued a female goldfinch, later named Gretel. This story is retold many times in the media, with the most frequent version describing the bird being found with an injured wing by a gardener at the papal summer palace Castel Gandolfo. Typically these stories mention the bird was initially cared for and named (Gretel or Grethel) by a PPs long-time associate, Sister (later Mother) Pascalina/Pasqualina Lehnert.

When PP died in 1958, the New York Times reported that Pasqualina departed Rome with two suitcases and six warblers. However, within a couple of paragraphs the birds were described as canaries and “Gretel, a goldfinch found as a fledgling in the gardens…some years ago.”

A 1967 National Catholic Reporter article provides another version. Rather than being rescued in the gardens, it reports that the goldfinch flopped with a broken wing into the bathroom window where PP was shaving.

The book Pius XII: Hound of Hitler provides still another alternative, that a goldfinch was a gift from a bishop made a cardinal by PP in 1953.

One way or another, it seemed PP did have a pet goldfinch. The plot thickened, however, when viewing the many photos showing the pleasant papal pet ownership.

Here is the most widely distributed photo of PP and a bird. There are a few versions of it, with just slightly different poses or crops. The typewritten caption dates the photo November 1955 (which corresponds with dates when it was published in various newspapers) of Gretel, a bird acquired “18 months ago”. But it describes the bird as a chaffinch.

The same photo in an article by the Catholic News Agency identifies the bird as a canary.

If this Gretel, Gretel was not a goldfinch. While juvenile European Goldfinches are somewhat streaky and lack the red and black head pattern of adults, they still show a bold yellow and black pattern on the wings. Since Gretel is always referred to as a female, it must be from some obviously dimorphic species (another strike against European Goldfinch). This photo is also not a chaffinch or canary (unless one of the unusual duller color mutations). In fact, I’m not entirely sure what this bird is if it is a wild, native species. There are surprisingly few candidates for tiny brown, streaky, Italian songbirds, even if we allow for it being a migrant (having been, if we believe the original photo caption, found in May during migration). My best guess might be a female serin.

Just to add to the mix, here’s a photo of PP holding a bird, described as a bullfinch. I’ve seen a similar photo in color, and can confirm that identification is correct. Nonetheless, the book Soldier of Christ: The Life of Pope Pius XII shows the photo with the caption that it’s a goldfinch, and describes his relationship with Gretel.

To summarize, Pope Pius XII was photographed with a bullfinch, some doves, and the little brownish bird above. He also certainly had canaries, which are often mentioned as his pets, with a personal favorite being named Gretchen. In her memoirs, Pasqualina describes Gretchen as a white canary.

I’ve yet to find a photograph of PP with a goldfinch. In May 1952 (predating both the bishop’s goldfinch gift and the 1957 acquisition of a bird in the garden), the cover of an Italian paper did feature this piece of art of PP shaving and a holding bird — finally, a goldfinch!

The caption begins: “Il cardellino del Papa” — The Pope’s Goldfinch. (The book Shepherd of Souls: A Pictorial Life of Pope Pius XII tells the story of Gretel the goldfinch and reproduces this cover including the caption, and yet right below it the author provides her own caption as “Gretel, the injured canary Pius XIII found in his garden and befriended…”!)

There were apparently no birders or ornithologists in the realm of the Vatican during or after the reign of Pius XII. A fair number of articles and blog posts I’ve read describe PP’s pets as canaries and goldfish — even more taxonomically astray.

So, in conclusion, the Vatican doesn’t know a lot about the birds and the bees, or even just the birds. 

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my year in birds: 2021

Well, here we are, it was 2020 all over again due to the covid-19 pandemic — at least for us. We did not travel, but we did a little birding close to home.

  • Total life birds: 1114. Two armchair ticks with taxonomic changes. There were actually a few losses but more gains, although I confess to no longer remembering what they were.
  • Total ABA-area birds: 587. Same (thus, the lifers were world birds).
  • Total state birds: 333. The most unexpected was a Roseate Spoonbill that appeared at a roadside pond and later a retention basin only a few miles from home. Although we heard about it within an hour or so of someone posting a “what is this?” to social media, there were mobs of people there. We got to see it right from the car, and did get to lean out the window and talk to an old friend. A Neotropic Cormorant in Wayne County was one of several in southeast Michigan this year (one pair attempted to nest in Macomb County). Only slightly less strange, but much less attractive, than the spoonbill. A LeConte’s Sparrow was the final expected pickup.

Home county

  • Total birds, Washtenaw County: 245. The spoonbill, plus a flyover Mississippi Kite from the back porch!
  • Total birds in my home township of Lodi Township: 205. The kite, along with Common Merganser and Sedge Wren.
  • Yard birds: 154. The kite.

Former work county. Again, I don’t get down there much, but am always looking to add to the county total.

  • Wayne County: 273. The cormorant, and Wilson’s Phalarope, which was the first nesting record in the county in many decades.
  • Total Dearborn birds: 231.
  • Total birds at work: 203.
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my year in birds: 2020

Well, here we are, mired in the stay-at-home covid-19 pandemic. I know a lot of people did a lot of local birding in 2020, for lack of travel and other safe activities. I was home, but pre-occupied with other stuff.

  • Total life birds: 1112. Nothing new, although I think the recent split of Mexican Duck may be an armchair tick…I’ll revise next year.
  • Total ABA-area birds: 587. Ditto.
  • Total state birds: 330. Black Vultures have been becoming more and more common in Michigan the last number of years. Finally picked one up in my home home county.

Home county

  • Total birds, Washtenaw County: 243. Black Vulture and yard Northern Saw-whet Owl.
  • Total birds in my home township of Lodi Township: 202. The vulture, the owl, and a Solitary Sandpiper in our wet woods, and a singing Prairie Warbler (which I initially thought was on the soundtrack of a movie on television) in the backyard.
  • Yard birds: 164. The owl, sandpiper, and warbler.

Former work county. I don’t get down there much, but will leave my totals here because I’d certainly add to it if I can. With the awesome flight of winter finches this season, I was really hoping to add Evening Grosbeaks. They seemed to move straight through southern Michigan. While we did get them in the yard a few times and we made 2 trips to Wayne County to look for them, no luck. Maybe on the return flight!

  • Wayne County: 271.
  • Total Dearborn birds: 231.
  • Total birds at work: 203.
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my year in birds: 2019

Well, I did do a little traveling in 2019: to Wisconsin for my sister-in-law’s birthday, and to Montana for spouse’s old friends reunion. I’d been to both states before, so no lifers on these trips. My life bird this year was Whooping Crane, in my home county.

  • Total life birds: 1112
  • Total ABA-area birds: 587. Note this is two more than last year, and I think the bird other than the crane may have been an armchair pickup of a bird added to the ABA list from a split.
  • Total state birds: 329. The crane and Brewer’s Blackbird (also in my home township).

Work county. Alas, now that I have left my long-time job, my former county, city, and workplace lists will likely not grow much, although if something really interesting shows up I might run over there and take a look.

  • Wayne County: 271. For whatever reason, I had somehow missed Common Gallinule in the county.
  • Total Dearborn birds: 231.
  • Total birds at work: 203. The last bird for these 2 categories was a Yellow-crowned Night-heron at work.

Home county.

  • Total birds, Washtenaw County: 241.
  • Total birds in my home township of Lodi Township: 198.
  • Yard birds: 161. Coolest was an Eastern Whip-poor-will that was around for a couple days; it was also a township and county bird for me. Alder Flycatcher was an expected species. Several others were flyovers: Caspian Tern, Trumpeter Swan, and Greater Yellowlegs. The tern was also a township and county bird. Yard list is now 176 species.
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my year in birds: 2018

“Birding” in the sense of really spending time in the field looking for birds has largely fallen by the wayside. My work over the past few years expanded into broader ecological endeavors, heavy on botany and entomology. But in keeping with tradition, here is my catch up post.

  • Some new life birds since the last update: Elegant Tern and Red-breasted Sapsucker (2017 on a visit to California) and Spotted Redshank (2018, in my home county), and Slaty-backed Gull (2018, in my former home county).
  • Total life birds: 1111.
  • Total ABA-area birds: 585.
  • Total state birds: 327.

Work county. Alas, now that I have left my long-time job, my former county, city, and workplace lists will likely not grow much, although if something really interesting shows up I might run over there and take a look.

  • Wayne County: 270. Last two were notable. One was the first confirmed record for the county for Say’s Phoebe, found by my other half at his work place, a big corporate campus, in December. The other was the above-mentioned gull.
  • Total Dearborn birds: 231.
  • Total birds at work: 203. The last bird for these 2 categories was a Yellow-crowned Night-heron at work.

Home county.

  • Total birds, Washtenaw County: 237.
  • Total birds in my home township of Lodi Township: 194.
  • Yard birds: 156; my better half has seen more species, so the yard list is actually 169. After 16 years, our yard list in Dearborn was 138.
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10 years with “the bug”!

Juniper (a.k.a. Juni, June Bug, The Bug, My Beautiful Girl) has been with us for ten years now. At nearly 12 years old, she is still as goofy, sweet, and playful as ever. We lost our beloved Sophie in 2013 and it was devastating for all of us, including Juniper. She was clearly depressed for some time, and when she finally came out of it, her personality was much more affectionate, and she became much more attached to me. Thus, she spends more time in my lap than ever before (and she sleeps in exactly the same place beside me as Sophie used to), but still gets the wild zoomies on a regular basis. We now also have another cat, Liberty (Libby). More on her another time, as this is Juniper’s special day!

We love you June Bug!


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still with me?

Did you think I had just given up, abandoning bootstrap to the graveyard of dead blogs?

The last few years have been a crush of winding down my university job, taking an offered premature retirement, and transitioning to more freelance work and more free time (in theory, at least). Although I have kept several of the outlets for my previous gig functioning, I’m going to rechannel my continued research output and outreach to other venues, including right here. I’m not sure if I will ever get back to the level of productivity of personal essays here that I used to, but we’ll see what happens.

You haven’t heard the last of me yet.

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my year in birds: 2014

My traditional compilation, after the second full year in my new home and home township.

Once again, due to many (expensive) house projects, we did not travel.

  • New life birds: None.
  • Total life birds: #1100. No change.
  • Total ABA-area birds: 579. No new species this year.
  • Total state birds: 315. A Western Kingbird showed up a few miles from home. We found out as we arrived home after running a lot of errands, and (to give you an idea of how little I chase birds anymore) I took a nap instead of going to see it with Kingfisher. It hung around, and I saw it the next day.

Work county

  • Wayne County: 265. New species this year was Wild Turkey (finally).
  • Total Dearborn birds: 226, new was Glaucous Gull.
  • Total birds at work: 197, that Glaucous Gull was there.

Home county– as I’m catching up here, I won’t start annotating these lists for a year or so.

  • Total birds, Washtenaw County: 217
  • Total birds in my home township of Lodi Township: 164
  • Yard birds: 141; my better half has seen more species, so the yard list is actually 156. After 16 years, our yard list in Dearborn was 138.
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my year in birds: 2013

My traditional compilation, which is essentially the same as last year, except that I’m filling in the baseline data at my new home and home township.

Otherwise, nothing new as we did not travel. Like last year, I picked up an armchair lifer, which I am counting because 1) it’s my list, and 2) I made a specific trip to find this species to have in “escrow”. See last year’s armchair lifers note regarding list “rules,” although I do not submit my lists to the ABA. In fact, this year I’m letting my membership lapse. Not so much over the whole premise of competitive bird listing — I accept that’s what this organization was founded on and I do support the more conservation-oriented direction they are going in — but because of their movement to providing much of their member services which used to be in print online. I’m obviously no Luddite, but I spend far too much time in front of the computer for business and pleasure. I’ve already converted most of my professional journal subscriptions to online only, especially since my employer does not pay for my memberships and getting print versions are very expensive. Unfortunately, I find that I skim the contents and sometimes the abstracts, but far fewer papers ever get downloaded and read. Same with the many newsletters and other materials I now get electronically.  I have so much more information available to me, and yet I feel that I utilize and absorb less and less of it. I particularly do not want to be tethered to some sort of device to do all of my pleasure reading. Anyway, on to the list.

  • New life birds:  Purple Swamphen. Seen at the epicenter of establishment at Pembroke Pines in Florida in 2002.
  • Total life birds: yep, that was #1100.
  • Total ABA-area birds: 579. No new species this year.
  • Total state birds: 314, nothing new this year.
  • Total birds, Wayne County  (where I work): 264, same as last year.
  • Total birds in my new home township after first full year: 150.
  • Total Dearborn birds: 225, nothing new.
  • Total birds at work: 196, nothing new.
  • Yard birds, new house, after first full year: 126 (though my better half has over 130, I think). It took us a long time to get a Rock Pigeon (and we’ve never had one at the feeders), but I think less than a month to get Evening Grosbeak, a species that I hadn’t seen in the lower peninsula in over 20 years. Turkeys are resident, we’re waiting for one of the Pileated Woodpeckers we’ve seen in our woods to made a feeder appearance, and Connecticut Warbler is already on our list.  No complaints here!


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my year in birds: 2012

My traditional compilation.

I took no trips at all this year, as my father was ill and passed away, and we bought and sold a house. We barely had time to eat, much less bird.

  • New life birds:  I picked up an armchair lifer with the split of Gray-lined Hawk (saw mine in Nicaragua in 2009) from Gray Hawk (which I have seen numerous times in the U.S. as well as Mexico and Honduras). Okay, I know the “rules” state a species must be valid when seen and retroactive species are not allowed. If you submit your lists to the ABA, which I do not. Of course, I know dozens of people who also violate Rule 4 (Diagnostic field-marks for the bird, sufficient to identify to species, must have been seen and/or heard and/or documented by the recorder at the time of the encounter) and Rule 5 (The bird must have been encountered under conditions that conform to the ABA Code of Birding Ethics). This is why, in fact, I don’t participate in competitive bird listing.
  • Total life birds: 1099.
  • Total ABA-area birds: 579. No new species this year.
  • Total state birds: 314 (new this year were Scissor-tailed Flycatcher and Red Crossbill).

I moved to a new county this year, but I’ll still be working in my old home county of Wayne and old city of Dearborn. So I’ll keep those lists, and start  few new lists. I probably will not work too much on my new home county list, and I don’t live within a city limits, so I will be keeping a township list instead.

  • Total birds, Wayne County: 264 (new: Scissor-tailed Flycatcher).
  • Total birds in my new home township: 86.
  • Total Dearborn birds: 225 (new species this year: Dickcissel and Northern Shoveler). I saw 148 this  year.
  • Total birds at work: 196 (new this year: Northern Shoveler).
  • Yard birds, old house final life tally: 138 (added in 2012: Red-shouldered Hawk and Louisiana Waterthrush).
  • Yard birds, new house: 78. My husband Kingfisher spent more time here before we officially moved in, and has 96 species for the yard.

Happy New Year.

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