For the Birds Radio Program: Magical Connections

Original Air Date: Dec. 14, 2003 (estimated date) Rerun Dates: Sept. 13, 2004

When birds make eye contact or approach us intentionally, it can feel like genuine magic.

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Last week I was sitting at my desk working when suddenly a Pileated Woodpecker lit on the suet feeder on the window just above my desk. She was at most four feet from my face. I was transfixed. Her glittering eyes met mine and we stared at one another for a magical moment, and then as if she suddenly thought, “Boy am I in the wrong place!” she flew away. The entire encounter lasted no more than ten seconds, but the memory of it will last a lifetime.

As wonderful as it is getting out into the woods or simply enjoying the birds at our feeders, magical encounters like this are few and far between. Normally we humans look at and listen to birds, but it’s strictly one way—they take little or no notice of us except to flee at our approach. But there is something deep within the human heart and soul that makes us long to connect with nature. In some of the most evocative of all scenes in popular Walt Disney feature films, a character is befriended by woodland creatures who sing and even dance with her. One of Robert Frost’s loveliest poems, “Two Look at Two,” is about a couple walking in the woods when they come upon a pair of deer, who stop and look into their eyes for a magical moment. The poem ends, “Still they stood, A great wave from it going over them,/ As if the earth in one unlooked-for favor/ Had made them certain earth returned their love.”

Even rarer than making eye contact with a wild creature is bridging the physical gap between us. Of course, gulls and pigeons are famous for bridging that gap in a rather unhygienic manner, and Alfred Hitchcock once explored the dark side of getting too close to birds, but most of the time when people get close to birds, it’s far lovelier than that. Even the lowly pigeon features in a beautiful scene in the movie Mary Poppins, when “the little old bird woman” calls to people to feed the birds as pigeons alight on her with nary a goopy white spot anywhere to be seen.

In real life, every year I hear from several hunters who tell me about chickadees, red-breasted nuthatches, and other little birds lighting on them as they wait in their deer stands, and in every case the hunters have a twinkle in their eyes and genuine joy in their voices as they tell me about it. Many people go to great lengths to hand-tame birds. At the Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center in Finland, MN, one of the most popular activities is sitting in a chair where normally a dressed dummy with bird seed in its glove and hat sits. One lucky student puts on the hat and glove, and little birds alight to a whole classroom’s delight.

The husband of a friend of mine suffered a stroke, and he spent many hours in a wheelchair on their deck, watching the backyard birds. After a while, my friend started putting mealworms in one of his paralyzed hands, and quickly chickadees, house wrens, and nuthatches started coming to him for food. Months later, the very first sensation he had was of a chickadee lighting on his finger.

Of course, it takes time and patience to get birds to trust us, and even when they do alight on us, they’re very wary. Years ago, a pair of blue jays used to fly in when I whistled for my backyard squirrels and gave them peanuts on the porch. The jays would follow the squirrels and dig up the peanuts the moment the squirrels had hidden them. Little by little, the jays decided to skip the middle man and started coming directly from me, too. They’d take the peanuts from the porch railing while I was standing right there next to it. And one of the two eventually started taking the peanuts out of my hand, but its mate never could get over its distrust. Even the tamest chickadees normally raise the feathers on their heads when they fly in, showing agitation, and they tend to stay near the outer edges of our hands and fingers rather than coming to our palms, where we could more easily grab them.