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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

"Taming Wild Birds"

by Etta S. Wilson

To go into the woods and call the birds and have them respond by coming to meet me has been one of my great desires. Accordingly, one fall, after migration was over and the resident winter birds were settled in the chosen locality for the seasons, I undertook the experiment. I was careful to select a spot easily accessible for the success of my plan would demand daily visits no matter what the weather might be.

Selecting a rather open space in the woods, I scattered some nut-meats on the ground, on a log, and on a stump where the food would be in plain sight. I visited the spot several days in succession afterward and found the food exactly where I had placed it. Then one morning I discovered that the food had disappeared. I again distributed a generous supply and the next day found that this also had been taken.

By making my visits regular and always placing the nuts in the open, the birds came in time to connect my appearance with the renewal of their food supply. They were usually hunting the ground over when I arrived, waiting shyly but expectantly for me to throw some to them. Sometimes two or three birds would dash for the morsel at the same time and there would be a lively squabble for a moment before the spryest bird would get it. Chickadees, Nuthatches, and Downy Woodpeckers were the regular visitors. They would come right up to the hem of my dress, stand there and look up at me keenly alert for the first movement of my hand. For a long time they fed about me I this manner, but finally one morning a Chickadee, bolder than the others, fluttered down from the branch of a tree immediately over my head, seized the nut from my outstretched hand, and few away with it.

The moment he did this, two other Chickadees came to my hand from the ground and snatched a nut in the same manner. I soon found that instead of holding out one nutmeat it was best to hold a handful as the hungry birds were eating constantly.

The most pronounced rule of etiquette among Chickadees seems to forbid two or more eating together. As many as ten birds have come to my hand, one after another in almost the same number of seconds, each taking the largest nutmeat in sight and flying away with it.

From the moment they began to eat from my hand they lost all fear of me. Now when I go into the woods they usually see me first and come to me, squeaking and calling delightedly. They flock about me with the greatest confidence. They eat out of my hand, whether it is outstretched or not, and if there is no food in my palm they will run up and down my arm pecking into every fold of my coat sleeve for the nuts that they believe are hidden away. They alight on my hat, on my muff, on my shoulder, and run all over me as though they were playing a game.

If I close my hand, leaving my thumb up-stretched, a bird will be sure to perch on the tip and stand there looking haughty and arrogant. Sometimes one will alight on my muff and sit in the deep fur as though to warm its feet. Another will alight upon the brim of my hat and stand in ornamental fashion like a piece of rare trimming.

Watching and studying these little friends so closely has been delightful. They have individuality. Some are bold and confident and come down into my hand with a bound. The moment they touch it the feet grasp my fingers, and often a very friendly Chickadee will stand there and sing. Others are timid and come barely to my finger tips, seizing a nut daintily and departing.

There is a very rude Nuthatch whom I have named ‘Pretty Boy’ on account of his lovely plumage, who does not hesitate to knock a Chickadee from my hand when he is ready to eat. Then there is a greedy lady Chickadee who not only eats all she can hold, but will continue to stay on my hand, apparently for the very selfish pleasure of keeping all the other birds away.

The Downies will never come to my hand, but will take food from the ground so near my feet that I have to be on the lookout for fear of stepping on them. The Chickadees are the friendliest. When the reporter and the motion picture operator came with me to place my bird friends on record, the Nuthatches and Downies left hurriedly and no amount of coaxing would bring them near. The Chickadees paid absolutely no attention to the men. Their attitude seemed to be, “Well, lady, if you are not afraid of those men, we are not.”

Truly these birds are not wild. Others of their kind and additional species may be approached as easily. I have done it with Blue-winged Teal, Grebes, Rails, and other birds that are relentlessly hunted. There is no magic pathway to their favor. All you have to do is convince them that you are a safe person to associate with and generous enough to invite them to dinner and they will do the rest.

Bird-Lore, Vol XXII, May-June 1920

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