Everyone seems to be living such busy lives these days, often consumed by technology. Consequently, many people have become disconnected from Nature and Her ability to help de-stress and bring joy to life. Perhaps a few stories will inspire reconnection?
As far back as I can recall, I’ve been an avid birdwatcher, and for decades, I’ve happily logged new sightings into my Birder’s Life List Diary. I’m often stymied over how some folks seem to be completely oblivious to the rich, avian life around them. I still laugh to myself over one incident that validated my observation.
Back in 1986, my husband and I were returning home from an engineering job he’d finished down in Texarkana, Texas. It was early morning and we were driving northeast along a rural stretch of Highway 67 just over the border into Arkansas. Every five to ten miles along the way, I noticed large, handsome hawks perched atop wooden fence posts—they were facing east, obviously warming themselves in the sunshine in preparation for hunting their first meals of the day across the open expanses of farm fields. I was unfamiliar with the species, and unfortunately, didn’t have my Peterson or Audubon Field Guides with me. Eventually, we stopped at a diner to hunt and gather our own breakfast.
After enjoying our delicious meals, we went up to the cash register to settle our bill, and I asked the young cashier, “Do you happen to know what kind of hawks you have around here?”
She looked at me a bit puzzled, then exclaimed, “Why…ham hocks, of course!”
I could barely contain myself but managed to hold a straight face, and relating our experience along the highway, explained that I meant birds. She laughed and said, “Oh, with your thick accent, I didn’t understand what you said. No, I’m sorry, I don’t know; I’ve never seen them.”
That struck me as both extra funny and strange. Wisconsinites aren’t exactly known for our “thick accents,” and it never occurred to me that I had one. Of course to my ear, she was the one with an accent. And, I found it so odd and sad that she had lived her whole life traversing that same highway and had never noticed the majestic hawks along her way. But after my animated description, she said she’d be on the lookout. I never did find out what kind of hawks they were.
When we built our retirement home in rural southwest Wisconsin in 1990, our small plot of land was completely barren of vegetation except for pasture grass, so we set about planting trees and shrubs. With a 185-acre farm abutting our back yard, there’s no lack of visitors, including raccoons, possums, moles, rabbits, thirteen-striped ground squirrels and a groundhog. Coyotes keep their distance but make their presence known with their howling. Years ago, I was astonished to see a mother grouse escort her line of chicks under an opening in the barbed wire fence to drink at the large, artificial puddle we’d dug to attract thirsty critters. A pair of wild turkeys stopped by one winter day to eat the berries off our viburnum. The big brush and compost pile in the back corner serves as cover for all manner of wildlife, and I recall being startled to see an American Kestrel dive in for a treat.
While raptor sightings are exciting, I’ve always taken pleasure in the everyday activity of smaller birds and encourage them with enhanced habitat, feeders and birdbaths. Now twenty-two years later, the yard hosts mature trees, shrubs and flower gardens that attract many guests. Wrens arrive the beginning of April. They raise their broods in both the wooden and gourd houses I provide, and until they leave at the end of August, earn their keep by patrolling my gardens for bugs.
Hummingbirds keep me entertained all summer, and I’ve had the delight of rescuing a couple that ran out of gas, gently holding them up to coral bell flowers to sip nectar until they could resume visits to their hanging feeders. This year, our local hummers lingered almost a month longer than usual, finally heading south during the final days of September.
So now, my attention has turned to fostering various other avian visitors passing through on their migration, along with gearing up for those who spend the cold months here. The list of three-season regulars is a colorful and jaunty mix of cardinals, blue jays, both white and red-breasted nuthatches, downy and red-bellied woodpeckers, goldfinches, house finches, weaver finches (common sparrows), tufted titmice, juncos, and chickadees. Most of those species tend to go fly-about during the summer, except to stop by for a drink or quick bath, and then return to populate feeders come fall. There are still some mourning doves and robins hanging around, but they’ll be shifting a bit further south as the weather turns colder.
My favorites are the chickadees. They’re intelligent, curious opportunists who are usually the first to check out any new feeder that magically appears in their environment, like my yard, which they consider theirs. They announce their arrival with loud, dee-dee-dee vocalizations and continue their busybody chattering as they quickly bounce from branch-to-feeder-to-branch. Holding a sunflower seed between their feet, they crack off the shell by pounding it with their beaks and are a constant source of amusement.
In 1994, I bought a (still available) copy of the revised classic, A Complete Guide to Bird Feeding by the late ornithologist, John V. Dennis, and was most intrigued by Chapter Seven: “How to Hand Tame.” The notion of a wild bird landing on my hand was very appealing, so that winter, I followed his instructions and gave it a try. Before re-filling my platform feeder, I stood frozen in place, gloved-hand filled with birdseed and patiently waited. It took several tries, but then one day, a chickadee landed with such authority that I was startled by the abruptness and flinched—it flew off and didn’t return. However the next day, while holding seeds in my bare palm, I had a red-breasted nuthatch gently alight and sort through the food, feeling like little, nibble-kisses on my skin. I was tickled and thrilled and have never forgotten that first experience. I’m not sure why I stopped after that. Perhaps it was the severity of the weather that discouraged me from standing out there in the freezing cold. Or maybe that had been enough to satisfy me at a time when I was busy with more important things, like taking care of my husband who was in failing health.
Fast-forward to an early morning late last winter. A boisterous flock of black-capped chickadees was making constant visits, so just for the fun of it, I held out a handful of seeds before re-filling their empty, fly-through, fast food diner. Within two minutes, one landed in my palm, grabbed a sunflower seed and dashed off. I was ecstatic. Dressed in my trademark, black-hooded sweat jacket, I laughed at the thought that perhaps it saw me as some sort of giant chickadee goddess suddenly providing vittles from avian-heaven. Feeding out of my hand continued almost daily for a few weeks, and by then I’d determined that it seemed to be the same brave chickadee that came each time, rather than multiple family members. With the arrival of summer, many of the birds moved down the valley into the pine forests to raise their families, and grackles and squirrel-piggies were monopolizing the seed and suet feeders. So, I took those in and switched to maintaining hummingbird stations.
As summer segued into autumn, the seedeaters returned and we resumed our routine. This time, in addition to sparsely used platform and suet feeders, I have a fabulous, grackle and squirrel-proof hanging feeder. (See sources at end of blog.)
Once again, it appears that only one chickadee is courageous enough to eat out of my hand—I think it’s a distant cousin of that early bird that always gets the worm. However, other birds seem to be taking notice and are venturing closer. They have no fear of making nonstop trips to the hanging feeder while I stand beneath it. The nuthatches are getting closer each day, and I think with patience, I’ll be able to coax them to my hand, too.
This past week, I went out several times, spending as long as an hour frozen in place holding seeds in my left hand whilst focusing the camera with my right. I took turns standing under the hanging feeder or positioning my palm just above my makeshift platform. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to capture my friend in a photo, but determination and persistence paid off! I also alternated between my bare hand and holding a mini basket of seeds. He/she really likes the basket and its handle for perching. At one point, the chickadee landed on my head, hopped down to my shoulder and along my arm before sitting in the basket to sort through seeds to select the perfect one. I find it fascinating that it’s so fussy. A few minutes later, I felt someone much heavier land on my head and was amazed to see a female house finch hop down my arm in the same manner!
To view a gallery of photos, click on any of the small images below and then use the large arrows on either side of the enlarged photos to advance the show. When finished, click the small “x” in the upper left-hand corner to exit and return here. This blog continues below the photos with tips for hand feeding, along with additional information.
Combining the instructions I gleaned from Mr. Dennis’s book and my personal experience, here are a few tips if you’d like to entice birds to your hand:
1. Wear the same clothes every time—that makes the birds comfortable and they will recognize you. You might try wearing gloves in the beginning, as birds are a bit leery of bare hands.
2. Go out at the same time every day, so they get in the habit of expecting you as a food source.
3. In the beginning, wait until feeders are empty, so hungry birds have no other option but your handheld offerings. Try holding out a little container of seeds, instead of your hand, to get them used to coming to you.
4. Approach slowly, then hold still and don’t swallow, as birds associate that with predators. Be quiet. If you like, talk to them in low, soft tones, never high-pitched and use the same words or phrases over and over.
5. Be patient! And experiment, realizing that birds have individual preferences just like people.
Keep looking up…and down…and all around. Enjoy Mother Nature’s delights that are organic stress-relievers with no negative side effects. And extend a welcoming hand…
While nothing can replace having a high-quality, physical field guide at the ready, here are excellent, on-line sources for identifying birds and learning about their habits and preferred habitats. A pair of binoculars, a notebook and a camera round out birders’ gear. Sources for hanging hooks and a squirrel-proof feeder are also listed below.
Audubon: The Online Guide to North American Birds: “This online guide to North American Birds features 750 species of birds in 22 Orders and 74 families. The guide covers all of North America’s regular breeding birds-approximately 580 species – as well as an additional 180 or so non-breeding species that regularly or occasionally visit North America north of Mexico.”
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has an on-line guide and you can also participate in their “Take Part in the Scientific Process with Citizen Science” projects.
eNature’s comprehensive site is filled with info on birds and birding.
Biography: “Roger Tory Peterson (August 28, 1908 – July 28, 1996) was an American naturalist, ornithologist, artist, and educator, and held to be one of the founding inspirations for the 20th century environmental movement.”
The Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History is loaded with info.
Easy Lift Hangers are super-handy, eliminating the need for a ladder so it’s fast and easy to hang and change positions of feeders in trees. I purchased a five-foot, replacement broom handle at the hardware store, which allows me to hoist feeders over nine feet onto tree branches. Available many places including here.
The Perky-Pet 5109 Fortress Bird Shelter Squirrel Proof Wild Bird Feeder featured in my photos is available from several sources including Amazon, which features free shipping. Positioned near the end of a tree branch, this is truly squirrel-proof! Be patient—it takes the birds a while to figure out how to use it, but once they do, they love it.