Most birders tell birds apart by their plumage or their songs, but some have a different angle.
Ed Jenkins knows how hard each bird bites.
Jenkins is an avian biologist with experience handling and releasing live birds in the name of science. United Kingdom-born Jenkins has handled more than 5,000 individual birds of more than 350 species, at research stations in New Zealand, Australia, China, Israel, and Canada. Part of the work involves catching birds in nearly invisible “mist nets,” so he and other biologists can take measurements, look for parasites, and otherwise measure the health of migratory birds.
Over the course of a field season, Ed holds hundreds of individual birds in his hands. I wanted to know: which ones are the feistiest?
I need to assuage a few fears before we dive in. Ed is a trained expert at handling birds. He handles birds very carefully, minimizing the bird’s movements for maximum safety. He processes and releases birds as quickly as possible and is always monitoring for signs of stress.
He knows what he’s doing, and he knows he’s going to get bit. Although the process is safe for birds they still don’t enjoy it and defend themselves against their giant human captors the best they can.
Well, some do, anyway.
Jenkins said some birds hardly put up a fight at all. Birds that haven’t evolved very strong bills – typically insect-eaters like warblers, thrushes, and flycatchers – generally accept their assumed fate. “They don’t have any kind of defense against a threat like humans,” he said, “and usually wait there motionless in your hand until you release them.”
But size is not the determining factor – chickadees and titmice are some of the most ornery birds. “Oh man, chickadees are tough,” Ed said with a groan. “If I see a net of birds the last thing I want to do is get the chickadee out.”
Black-capped Chickadees will peck at Ed’s fingers with their bills slightly open, and then pinch. They also have an uncomfortably good aim. “I don’t know if they know to go for cuticles, but they do,” he said. “It’s uncanny.”
Small birds with strong bills are also dangerous. Birds like purple finches, northern cardinals, and rose-breasted grosbeaks have all evolved large, strong bills meant for cracking open seeds. They also try to crack open fingers.
Woodpeckers don’t have a strong bite, but they’ll try to drum on your knuckles like a dead tree. Ed is particularly wary of a small woodpecker called a yellow-bellied sapsucker, which can draw blood with both its chisel-pointed bill and the sharp claws it uses to cling to the sides of trees.
One might think that the bite of hawks and owls is especially dangerous, but the bill isn’t really what you’re worried about. Raptors don’t kill with their bills, they kill with their talons, and have specially designed tendons that lock down on prey to prevent it from escaping.
“You really want to avoid letting a raptor get its talons in you,” Ed said, with experience in his voice.
What’s the most painful bird he’s ever held? It’s a bird of prey, but not any of the ones you might be imagining. Only about the size of a robin, the northern shrike hunts small mammals like voles and mice and, unlike hawks and owls, kills them with its beak instead of its talons.
“In the hand,” Ed said, “they’ll bite down, hold their bill closed, and then wrench their strong necks back and forth. It’s incredibly painful.” Northern shrikes are winter visitors to southern Maine, but Ed hasn’t yet caught one here.
“And I don’t want to,” he said.
Nick Lund of Cumberland is outreach and network manager at Maine Audubon. He has written about nature for the National Audubon Society, Down East, National Parks Magazine, The Washington Post, and others. He can be found online at TheBirdist.com and on Twitter @TheBirdist.