A Bird in the Hand

Birders like to keep lists. Serious birders keep a life list – a list of all the birds they have seen since they started birding – and enjoy adding to that list as they travel to new places and see new species. Many keep yard lists or year lists, tallying each new bird they see in their yard or over the course of a calendar year. The truly dedicated birders keep “big day” lists or “big sit” lists – a list of all the birds seen or heard in a 24-hour period, whether by visiting as many habitats and local birding hotspots as possible, or by sitting in one location for the entire period. Big days and big sits may be personal or competitive, where individuals or teams compete to find the highest number of birds in the same 24-hour period. Big day competitions are often used as fundraisers for bird conservation or to raise awareness of local birding opportunities.

I’ve even heard of birders who keep a list of all the birds they have seen or heard on TV. I personally don’t get this, but every now and then the birds I hear or see onscreen catch my attention, such as during last Sunday’s season premier of “The Walking Dead” when I tallied five species: there was the Great Horned Owl, of course, but I also heard the calls of an American Crow, Blue Jay, Red-winged Blackbird and a Chuck-Will’s-Widow during the show. Not that I’m keeping track or anything!

Ruffed Grouse

My most unusual list is those of birds I’ve either held in my hand or have hand-fed. As you might guess, it’s a short one:

  1. Mallard
  2. Ruffed Grouse
  3. Ring-billed Gull
  4. Rock Pigeon
  5. Downy Woodpecker
  6. Gray Jay
  7. Blue Jay
  8. Black-capped Chickadee
  9. Red-breasted Nuthatch
  10. White-breasted Nuthatch
  11. House Sparrow

In Ottawa, it’s not hard to attract a chickadee or a nuthatch to an outstretched hand filled with black oil sunflower seeds or peanuts. In Algonquin Provincial Park, the Gray Jays are just as tame. And it doesn’t take much imagination to see how the mallards at local parks might become so accustomed to being fed that they will take food from the hand of the person sitting on the bank of the river!

Downy Woodpeckers and Blue Jays are much warier, even though they are smart enough to see humans as a food source and will often fly in to investigate when they see the chickadees being fed. There is a Downy Woodpecker at Mud Lake that is tame enough to feed from your hand; I had heard of it, but hadn’t realized just how tame it was until it landed on a tree in front of me and looked at me expectantly. I snapped this picture before holding out my hand; she landed on it briefly before realizing I had no food for her and flew off again.

Downy Woodpecker

The Blue Jay was also a fluke. Every morning five or six Blue Jays come to my yard looking for peanuts. They have gotten used to me standing on my back deck while I toss peanuts onto the lawn and on the steps; they even land on the deck railing while I am standing there. One day I decided to see if one would land on my hand. When one of Blue Jays landed on my fence and looked at me, I placed my hand on the railing, palm up, with a peanut in it. To my utter surprise, the jay flew in, landed on the railing, and leaned over and took the peanut! It flew under my patio table and started pecking away at the peanut, which was still in its shell…but then a chipmunk came along and stole it. The jay flew back up onto the fence, looking for another peanut, so I held out my hand again. To my delight, the jay came back and took a second peanut from my hand.

The Ruffed Grouse is the only other bird on the list that I’ve fed from my hand. It’s rare to come across a grouse that does not instantly fly off as soon as it sees you, but one winter I noticed one in the woods at the Old Quarry Trail that actually approached me when I walked by! I scattered some seeds on the ground; he became interested, and lapped them up. Once they were gone, he looked at me for more. I put some seeds on my hand to see if he would take them, and he did! I knew no one would be believe me, so I made sure to take a picture as evidence (see above).

The Ring-billed Gull is a sadder story. I came across it at Mud Lake, wading in the water behind the ridge with a clam in its bill. I took a few photos before I noticed that the gull was not eating the clam; rather, its bill was stuck in the clam. He seemed very weak and lethargic, so I walked up to him and caught him gently but firmly around his body. On close inspection I realized that I wouldn’t be able to remove the clam from his mandible without injuring his mouth, so I decided to take him to the Wild Bird Care Centre instead. I carried him all the way back to my car, earning some strange looks from the non-birders there the same day. Fortunately the WBCC was able to remove the clam and clear up the resulting infection, and my gull was eventually released back into the wild.

Ring-billed Gull

How I came to hold a pigeon is probably the strangest story. It was a bitterly cold day in January (almost -30°C), and while I was walking on Rideau Street at lunch time I saw a pigeon fly down from a roof top and land directly in front of the tire of a car stopped at a red light. If the car rolled forward, the pigeon would be crushed; I couldn’t let that happen. I ran out into the street, waved madly at the driver, scooped up the pigeon in my gloved hands, and carried him across the street to safety.  I’m not sure if the pigeon was suicidal, looking for warmth, or just really, really dumb.

The House Sparrow was another rescue, but nowhere near as dramatic as the previous ones.  Just a few days ago I was at Westboro station, having just gotten off a bus on the transitway on the lower level.  The lower platform has a glass wall at the back and a glass roof with a curved overhang but is completely open at the front.  I saw a bird fluttering along the glass at the back of the waiting area and stopped to see if it was injured.  It was a female House Sparrow, a bird that nests along the transitway in good numbers.  She wasn’t injured, so I put my hand on the ledge right in front of her.  She gave me what appeared to be a trusting glance, and then hopped onto my finger as if she knew I had come to help her.  All I needed to do was turn around 180° so that I was facing the road and take a step forward; as soon as I did she flew off, heading toward the open sky.

I don’t think I’ll be adding to this list any time soon as there aren’t very many birds left that are tame enough to take food from a human hand.  I suppose I could try to add Canada Goose to my list, but having already been nipped by one once while doing nothing more than standing on the lawn at Andrew Haydon Park, I am not eager to stick my hand in another one’s face.  So, barring another unplanned rescue, I think this list is as long as it’s going to get…which leaves me with a lot of time to go see if I can find two in the bush!

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7 thoughts on “A Bird in the Hand

  1. Hi Gillian:

    You should look into bird banding at Innis Point in the spring. You could rapidly add to this list there. They have “user-friendly” hours on weekends between the end of April and first week of June every year, which lets you arrive at 8:30 instead of 4:30-5am for us banders. There is also saw-whet owl banding in the fall. Plenty of opportunities to add some new species to your “in the hand” list.

    • Thanks for commenting Pat! While I might be interested in bird banding (how does one apply for that, anyway?) it takes some of the fun out of it when the birds are caught by a net! I think it would be more fun if I were to catch them in the hand as they are flying toward me instead – like you did! 🙂

  2. I’ll echo Pat’s sentiment–bird banding is incredibly enjoyable and rewarding. I had the chance to sit in with a group of banders a couple of years ago in West Texas and it was a blast.

    • Thanks for the comment, Jim. I keep thinking about going out to Innis Point (where our local bird banding station is located) some Saturday morning but keep forgetting. :/ I might take Pat up on his suggestion to go next spring when they open at8:30.

  3. I think the majority of birders are notorious listers. Myself personally I’m always trying to reach my next bird to add to my life list, or yard list. I’m always curious to see how many birds I see in a year, and eBird really helpful for this because when you enter your data from a field trip they tally it for you. Takes the guess work out.

    • Hi Les! I LOVE using eBird to keep track of all my lists. In addition to using it for my yard and year lists, I find it’s a great tool for keeping track of the various birds I see at my favourite birding spots. I actually wrote up a post about eBird some time ago, hoping it would encourage others to use it (Do You eBird?).

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