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House Finches

What can we learn about marriage and other relationships from the birds? Courtney Ellis’ ponderings refresh our thinking.


House Finches

By Courtney Ellis


When I ask a couple who’ve been together fifty, sixty years what their secret is, most often they’ll give me a bemused sort of smile and nonanswer.

“Oh, just care for each other.”

“We try to be kind.”

“I say that I love her every day, and she says it back.”

Perhaps it is impossible to describe the intangibles that make a good and lasting partnership. We have to resort to explaining via sweeping generalities like love and patience and kindness.

In spring, House Finches are looking for partners, for their One True Love for at least a few weeks of mating and nest-building and egg-laying. They turn into loud little things, their usual short calls bursting into lengthy songs. It’s speedy gibberish that ends on an upturn, like a happy question: Chatterchatterchatterchatterchatter … okaaaaay? Their spring is loquacious; their love letters prolific. They are courting, twitterpated, head over heels.

In the spring of our relationship, Daryl and I wrote dozens of letters, first mailed to our college post office boxes and then across the country as we took our first burgeoning steps at independent adulthood—he in Boston, I in Colorado. He studied theological German at Harvard and I interned at a rock-climbing magazine, both of us running hard and fast on tracks for careers we would eventually set aside to step into pastoral ministry. We were young and ambitious, singing rapid-fire to one another through pen and page. There were so many questions to ask. There was so much to say.

If our marriage were a person, it’d be in driver’s ed now, aged sixteen years. We’ve become the House Finches of late summer, their calls worn down by the relentless heat and the raising of young until most of what they have to say to one another can be summed up in familiar chirrups of sameness. I used to fear this season, the shine of a marriage all worn off. It seemed sad, somehow, to develop so much shorthand that words would often not even be necessary, because all could be communicated with a heavy sigh or a wry smile or a nod toward the dishwasher. Our spring plumage has faded; the eggs have hatched. This could be a season where the thrill is gone, and there are days I look for signs of malaise and apathy, the settled sadnesses of middle age.

But instead I find that shabby chic is its own glory. We revel in intangibles as hard to put into words as the call of a bird—things like trust and stability and faithfulness and care. To grow old with someone does not have to be, as I once feared, rote or boring or filled with half-buried resentments. It can be a miraculous thing, a House Finch returning to the feeder again and again and again, weary from the flight but waiting a holy wingbeat so his partner can eat first. It’s more miraculous still when this kindness is extended not just one time but ten thousand.

I grew up where House Finches were rare. It was Black-capped Chickadees we witnessed in abundance, prevalent as pine trees in the north Wisconsin forests.

I’m back in Wisconsin now. Hanging artwork the children have drawn for Grandpa on the wall in front of his hospital bed when Grandma returns from making phone calls to the family.

“They’re all going to come,” she says, her phone in her hand.

Somehow, we’ve all sensed the urgency. In a few hours we will all be together again at the same time, a first since the pandemic began.

“Do you want a few moments?” I ask my grandmother.

“Okay,” she says. “Okay.”

She sits and I gently scratch between her shoulder blades, tracing circles on her heavy fleece jacket. This was the same gesture of love and comfort she used to help me fall asleep when I’d visit her as a young girl. Grumples, she called it. She sighs.

“I’ll be back in a few minutes,” I say, my eyes brimming.

They’ve been married sixty-four years.


Adapted from Looking Up: A Birder’s Guide to Hope Through Grief by Courtney Ellis. ©2024 by Courtney Ellis Used by permission of InterVarsity Press.


Courtney Ellis is a pastor at the Presbyterian Church of the Master in Mission Viejo, California. Looking Up: A Birder’s Guide to Hope through Grief is her latest book. She is also the author of Happy Now and Present. She also hosts The Thing with Feathers, a podcast about birds and hope. She lives in Orange County, California, with her husband and three children. Connect with her at or on X @CourtneyEllis.


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