Guest Blogging Day 9: Eric Brierley

Welcome back to the Swarovski Optik Blogging Contest entry! Just a few more entries to go! Today's entry comes from Eric Brierley, past president of the San Antonio Audubon Society. He helped with a banding project for many years at Mitchell Lake Audubon Center in San Antonio, TX. Currently Eric birds and blogs from Austin, TX. You can contact him on his Twitter feed, or his blog.

Cardinal Damages Digits

All the cardinals I know suffer from split personality disorder. Most of their family members are a wee bit off as well. It must be something about the pointy red thing on top of their heads. Or perhaps their feathers are on too tight. What? Of course they have feathers. Oh, you thought I was referring to a Father of the Church. No, no, no, Northern Cardinals, birds.

I 'm an avid bird watcher, also known as a 'birder'. Get it? Bird watcher, bird-er. Never mind. At any rate, for many years I helped a local bander with a bird population study. We caught birds in mist nets, put a small numbered metal band on their leg, weighed and measured them, then let them go. Often we would recapture a bird. This let us determine how long it had been in the area, and assess general health by getting its current weight, then checking feather condition and subcutaneous fat stores.

What's a mist net? Thanks for asking. They are generally 12 to 18 meters long, 2 meters high, and stretched between poles that are set into the ground. The mesh of a net is very fine and the birds can't see it well. When they fly into the net, the bird gets tangled. We checked the nets every 10 minutes to remove any captured birds. A word of caution, don't do this at home. You need a Federal permit just to have the nets.

Many birds are calm in the net once they realize that they can't free themselves. Others don't settle down until you are holding them and working to get them untangled. Cardinals are an altogether different animal. Well not really, they're birds. Okay, yes, birds are in the animal kingdom, but you know what I mean.

Have you ever seen the bill on a Cardinal? It's almost as big as ... well take my word for it, it's a real honker, and powerful, and has lots of leverage. After all, Cardinals eat seeds and nuts, and crack them open with that bill.

Here is where the fun starts. The thing to remember about Cardinals is this, they bite. Hard. Want to know what it feels like? Okay, get a pair of pliers with narrow pointed jaws. Yes, pliers have jaws. It's the part opposite the handles. Select a tender spot near the tip of one of your fingers. Gather about 1/8 of an inch of skin with the tip of the pliers. Now squeeze the handles and don't let go. Not so hard that you break the skin. Wiggle the pliers around a little to simulate a Cardinal shaking his head. Get the idea?

It’s time to walk the net lines and collect captured birds. Rounding the corner of the trail, I see a still net and a blaze of red feathers. Remember that comment about split personalities? Cardinals stay calm and cute looking until your hand gets close. Then they wig out and go for the fingers. Quick, look for a Cardinal chew toy, also known by the highly technical term “stick”. Better that it gets chomped instead of me. This proud fellow happily grabs onto the stick, and after a brief contest of wills I have him loose and into a small transport bag. I collect a couple of Yellow-rumped Warblers and a Carolina Wren from another net, stash each one in its own bag, and head back to the banding station in the back of a van just around the corner.

Arriving back at the station, I take Mr. Cardinal out of his bag. I have his head gently secured between two fingers, his back against my palm, and my thumb and other fingers softly wrapped around his body to keep him still. This is the “banders grip”.

The band is attached and the number is verified. I measure his tail and the length is recorded. While I'm distracted extending his wing to get the chord length, the distance from elbow to wingtip, this year old handful seizes his chance by seizing my finger. Woo, woo, woo that hurts! Now mind you I can't let go of him because we aren't done. I need that wing measurement and then I have to weigh him. Slow deep breaths, stay calm. Sounds like a Lamaze class doesn't it? I knew that breathing stuff would come in handy one day. For me.
I finish measuring and get his wing tucked back in. Somebody find me a chew toy! Ah ha, there's one in his transport bag, but he's not falling for that again. So I put him back in the bag and he calms down and lets go. It is safe to say that this Cardinal has certainly made an impression. Literally. I've got a tiny little blood blister where he latched on. This dude gets weighed in the bag. Then the weight of the bag by itself is subtracted to get the weight of the Cardinal. Clever idea isn't it? I'm not sticking my hand back in there again. No way, not me.

Now it's time to let this rascal loose in the world again. He is biting part of the bag so my fingers are safe. With the Cardinal in hand, I walk over to the tree line and let him go.

Now this bird, who has just actively defined the classic “in-your-face attitude”, with feathers, does an amazing thing. He flies in a wimpy kind of way, well, flops and flutters is actually a better description, up to a branch. He's dangling the leg with the band. He has a kind of "now what am I supposed to do" look. Perched, he lifts the leg and checks out his new bling. Apparently it doesn't meet with his standards. He gives a disdainful look and takes off, complaining loudly to his drinking buddies about the indignity of it all.

Bet he won't be whining when that cute little female Cardinal we banded earlier flies over and whispers, "It's just sooo cute. See, I've got one too." Ah, love.

Thanks, Eric! We'll be back with our last few entries!