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A bird in the hand

November 13, 2008
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I spent another beautiful fall morning yesterday with the folks from the NC Science Museum banding birds at their Prairie Ridge ecostation. The numbers of birds in the nets weren’t as high as the last time I helped out, but there are definite indications of the seasonal changes. The warblers we had before are replaced by sparrows, and Fields in particular, made an excellent showing, in addition to the usual fare.

The coolest thing out there was the recent return of a Loggerhead Shrike who had spent last winter in the area. We saw it on and off throughout the day, but it was too clever to get caught in the nets this time. We did, however, track down its larder, a small honey locust festooned with dead critters, this time a skink and a little Brown Snake dried to herp jerky.

The shrike was trapped and banded last year using a special trap that looks something like a lobster trap baited with a dead mouse. There’s talk to trying it again, as the bird we saw today didn’t appear to be banded. It’s possible that it’s a new bird, but more likely is that the same bird as last year figured out how to rip off the tiny aluminum band with its fearsome bill.

I did get to get my hands on some new species of birds. It’s most interesting to find out the different “personalities” of some species in this situation. Sparrows seem docile, Cardinals are screamers, Mockingbirds appear offended. This time a family of Carolina Chickadees got caught in one of our wooded nets. These birds are little monsters and the one I had was worse then even the Cardinals with their seed crushing bills.

From the moment I stuck my hand in the bag to pull the bird out and it immediately hopped into my palm and began pecking at my fingers, I knew I had a rough time ahead of me. As you can see in the photo below, this bird managed to find every single soft bit of skin on my fingers and grabbed on tight, even pecking at my bones and cuticles like they were a sunflower seed wedged between its feet.

What was odd was that, of the three Chickadees that came out of the same net, this one was by far the most aggressive. I wonder if anyone has done a study on social hierarchy among Chickadee family groups, as the other birds appeared to defer to this one and would call unless it called first. Anyone out there know the answer to that?

It makes sense based on anecdotal observations. I suspect it would be fairly difficult to color band a troop of Chickadees and follow them through the woods, but I bet you could learn a lot. They’re probably far more complex then we give them credit for. There are certainly groups of birds that are not very smart, but I certainly wouldn’t put Chickadees in that category.

Anyway, another fun morning banding birds. Hopefully more to come.

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5 Comments
  1. Patrick Belardo permalink
    November 13, 2008 8:16 am

    I’ve never banded a bird myself, but I’d love to. I have watched it and have seen Cardinals and RB Grosbeaks draw blood from people. I know my little parakeets hurt like heck when they bite. I can’t imagine a big bill like a Cardinal. Do you know if the Shrikes bite? I can imagine that being pretty painful.

  2. November 13, 2008 9:03 am

    Cardinals hurt, but when they bite they tend to grab whatever they can find, hold on tight and don’t let go. You can usually get around that by putting a toothpick or Q-tip in their mouths and letting them clamp down on that. That shuts them up.

    The Chickadee, by comparison, was very careful about what it would bite, then would grab and twist and let go and grab and twist and peck and seemed to basically know exactly what was going on and how to make things as uncomfortable as possible. There really seemed to be something going on in those little eyes. Something malevolent.

  3. Jochen permalink
    November 13, 2008 11:12 am

    If you’re as small and delicate as a chickadee, yet expect more from life than supporting your local Sharpie population, you gotta come up with a decent plan.
    Sorry for your fingers, but that shrike is pretty nice. I have never seen a Loggerhead…

  4. noflickster permalink
    November 13, 2008 12:05 pm

    The shrike’s larder tree is one of the coolest photos I’ve seen!

    Regarding chickadee hierarchies, they are pretty well studied (at least as reported in the BNA Online), both near and away from food sources (read: feeding stations). Studies have shown in most cases a clear dominance/subordinate relationship between individuals, but in some cases a more ambiguous relationship.

    Dominance, it’s reported, does not necessarily dictate flock movement or improve overwinter survival, but it does determine breeding opportunities (like you’d expect). The three things that correlate with dominance: males dominate females, prior breeders dominate immigrants and floaters, and larger males dominate smaller ones.

    You must have grabbed a large, successful male!

    Nice post!
    -Mike

  5. November 13, 2008 12:21 pm

    @jochen- I was told by the folks who caught the Shrike last year, that it was surprisingly calm in the hand and didn’t try to bite. Odd given their reputation and intimidating bill.

    @Mike – I knew I could count on you about the Chickadees. I thought there had been something done about their social structure, and Becky, the collections manager and head bander, mentioned something about how their social structure was similar to that of lions. Cool stuff.

    I would have liked to weigh it to see it was larger than the 9.0g that the others were, but it managed to squeeze out of the film canister we put them in to weigh them and get away before we could record it! Sneaky bird.

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