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periscope
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