In another week of sharing our station with Black Bears we were forced yet again to frequently keep our twelve ground-level standard nets closed and rely on our two mid-canopy aerial nets. However, less frequent bear encounters let us open the ground nets a few times and we were able to band 632 birds this week – 279 of them on August 19 when we had to close some nets just to keep captures manageable. The highlight was capturing our eighth and ninth ever Common Grackles.
When we handle birds, most species do not fight us. This leads many visitors to remark on how calm the birds appear, but I am sure the birds are convinced we are going to eat them. This is why we maintain a quiet atmosphere in the banding lab and get birds back out into the wild as soon as possible to minimize their stress. They just appear calm because we are highly trained and know how to be firm without hurting them. Most birds will not exhaust themselves fighting us when they could simply wait for us to slip up to make their escape. Warbler species often fall under this ‘calm’ category and are pleasant to work with.
The apparent calmness of most birds leads many visitors to ask, “do the birds bite you?” and “does it hurt?”. The answers are, of course, “sometimes” and “it depends”. There are species that fight you every step of the way.
Most small songbirds do not bite hard since their beaks and the attached muscles simply have not evolved much strength. Although they rarely bite us, we hardly notice a warbler’s attack. Bigger birds are a different experience and use their long necks for great flexibility and their large size to deliver a large bite or peck that can draw blood. Most woodpeckers fall under this category.
Perhaps surprisingly there are a handful of small birds that leave the fingers aching. Among these are vireos who latch on and begin twisting their heads with a firm hold thanks to their hooked beak, and White-throated Sparrows with relatively strong beaks and persistent attitudes, but most surprisingly of all are Black-capped Chickadees. These 10 gram birds have the disposition of a poorly trained chihuahua and somehow realize that pecking at the fingernails is not painful, so they switch over to the cuticles and are unrelenting.
When our field staff was polled, we unanimously nominated the Rose-breasted Grosbeak as the worst biter. They are large, angry birds with large, seed grinding beaks that pulsate rather unpleasantly once they have gotten a good hold. We sometimes try to give them sticks to bite to spare our fingers when we extract them, but it is often unsuccessful.
If you would like to see these bites first-hand, join us for what may be our last songbird tour for the year on Wednesday, August 30.
By Robyn Perkins, LSLBO Bander-in-Charge