Skidmore Home About Scope Editor's Mailbox Back Issues

Campus Scene
Who, What, When
Class Notes
Saratoga Sidebar
Picture This


Letters Readers weigh in
Bird in the hand
Ad Lib
Skidmorites talk about the blues

Bird in the Hand

When it comes to animals, I’ve got a hands-on attraction for pretty much every living thing that creepeth upon the earth. I commune with spiders and bees; I admire snakes; I never met a mammal I didn’t like. But my relationship with birds is more complicated:

I find them lovely to look at but rather icky to hold.

The first time I got to really handle a bird was with Skidmore biologist Corey Freeman-Gallant (see page 5) as he and his students netted, measured, and leg-banded songbirds in the college’s North Woods. I learned how to straitjacket a feisty chickadee loosely in my fingers;

I stuffed it unceremoniously, yet tenderly, into a cardboard toilet-paper core for weighing; and then, wishing it a whispered farewell, I let it fly. It was exhilarating and poignant to steal and then restore the freedom of such a wondrous, jewel-like little creature. It reminded me of the time another chickadee, busily surfing my backyard feeder one morning, accepted my proffered forefinger as a perch. I breathlessly watched its tiny chest pulsating to its heartbeat, and in a moment, with a low purr of wingbeats, it flitted back to the feeder.

Most of my other avian encounters featured my sister’s pet cockatoo. It would always clamber around my shoulders, solicit a few scritches, fiddle nonchalantly with my hair or eyeglass frames, and then…at some point…bite! me, really hard, on the ear. But even when it made nice, I found it somewhat repellent: the uncanny lightness of bone and skin; those scaly, gnarly feet; those weird feathers, soft and stiff at the same time; and—the deal-breaker for me—the way the beak articulates (or doesn’t; it seems crudely tacked on) to the pimply, crepey, thinly feathered skin of the throat. For me, cuddliness is largely a function of surface uniformity (swaths of smooth skin or plush fur), so the heterogeneity and disjunction of cockatoo anatomy gave me the heebie-jeebies.

Which is exactly what I gave a hummingbird last summer. It had flown into my porch and, tricked by the view of blue yonder in a domed skylight, couldn’t find its way out. I climbed a ladder, ignoring the hummer’s feeble alarm squeaks and whirring evasions, and, as soon as it lit on a ledge, I scooped it up in my hand. Before I let it go in the yard, I gave it was especially impressed by its concern but not panic, its readiness rather than resignation, as it waited and trembled in my huge, fleshy, human paw. When I opened my fingers it confidently buzzed away into a distant tree. And with that, I think I’m cured: If an eighth ounce of fluff and determination can face up to a lumbering, grabby primate with such aplomb, I figure what’s a bit of horny beak and scabrous skin among friends? —SR