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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Dining with Birds

Air Date: Week of

Hugh Wiberg, author of “Hand-feeding Backyard Birds,” shows host Steve Curwood the fine points of feeding wild birds out of the palm of one’s hand.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. With me now is Hugh Wiberg. He's a freelance writer, and he's written a book called Hand-Feeding Backyard Birds. And we're out here at the Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary outside of Boston, something run by the Audubon Society, to hand-feed birds.

WIBERG: That's the plan, Steve.

CURWOOD: Ah, okay. How's this going to work? I like to think that I'm friendly and charming, and yet I don't think I've ever had anything aside from a rather assertive parrot or a cheerful parakeet land on my fingers.

WIBERG: Well, I'll tell you. Human beings have been conditioned since early childhood to believe that wild birds are going to stay clear of human beings. And for the most part that's true. But what I've discovered by wandering through various wildlife sanctuaries in Massachusetts is that if you have a lot of patience, and can take the time, you can condition the birds to take feed right out of your hand.

CURWOOD: So they get to know you. You become their buddies.

WIBERG: Exactly. You become their buddies.

CURWOOD: Okay, well what are we going to do now? Tell me what --

WIBERG: All right. We're going to take a walk down into an area in this sanctuary where the birds have pretty much come to expect that when Wiberg walks into the sanctuary they're going to get a free snack. And I've found, doing a lot of experimenting, that the wild birds, particularly the common birds that we see in this area, the nuthatches and the chickadees and the tufted titmice, they love walnut meats. And I'm holding in my hand right now lots of little bits of walnut meat. And with any luck at all we're going to have some company this morning as we wander down into the sanctuary.

CURWOOD: Okay, well let's go.


WIBERG: Now, we're coming into an area of pine trees here, where I usually am greeted by a small group of chickadees who are looking for their morning handout.

CURWOOD: Will they be scared by us talking?

WIBERG: They will not be scared if we talk while they're around. Their hearing mechanisms are decidedly different than ours. I think they're on a much higher frequency than we are. I'm not at all sure that they even hear us when we talk. Now, let's stand here for just a minute and see if any of these guys are aware of my presence yet. I'll be very embarrassed if they're a half a mile from here, but we'll see chickadees. Maybe not right in this spot, but we will see them. Good morning gentlemen, ladies. Anybody looking for a snack here today?

(Bird chirps)

WIBERG: Dead silence. That's the sound of a black capped chickadee that you just heard. All right, these guys are chattering to themselves about something else, so we're going to continue our little walk a little further down here. And we will encounter some chickadees as we walk down this path over here.


CURWOOD: How often do you come?

WIBERG: In the wintertime, at least once a week, usually on a Saturday or a Sunday morning. Here we go.

(A loud chirp; wings flapping)

CURWOOD: Well, look at that. There comes one, and now another one.

WIBERG: You see, we've got quite a little family in here that are - they have their own pecking order. They're lining up, up there, to come in, depending on where they stand in the chickadee hierarchy.

CURWOOD: This one is next, kind of a big one. This is amazing.

WIBERG: Isn't that fun?

(A loud chirp; a plane in the background)

WIBERG: Now, Steve, for just a second here I'm going to put some feed in your hand, and you're going to have one or two of these guys on you before you can say Jack Robinson. Stand right up there, close to that shrub. See now, they're a little cautious, because you're a stranger to them. But you're with me, and they know me. And there's a tufted titmouse up there, by the way.

CURWOOD: Oh there comes one.

WIBERG: You almost had that titmouse standing on your hand.

CURWOOD: He chickened out after --

WIBERG: He'll be back.

CURWOOD: Well there's a -- (Laughs) Oh, that's amazing!

WIBERG: And the first one is always the biggest thrill. I'd like to see that titmouse come down and stand there.

CURWOOD: Oh, here's another chickadee. And another one.

(Loud chirps; wings)

CURWOOD: Does it hurt the birds to feed them like this?

WIBERG: Hurt in what sense?

CURWOOD: What if they become dependent?

WIBERG: Okay, that's a very good question. The School of Ornithology at Cornell University did a controlled test on exactly that question. They had two groups of chickadees out in the field, one who were deep in the forest who had never had any contact with human beings, and another that were close to society and were getting bird food on a regular basis. And the birds that were being fed on a regular basis had their food cut off after six months, the warm summer months. Anyway, the long story short was that both groups of birds showed no drop off in mortality rates, whether they had contact with humans or whether they did not. So the consensus appears to be that this does not hurt them in any way.

CURWOOD: Is there any risk of disease, either to humans or to the birds?

WIBERG: No. As far as ornithologists are able to determine, diseases between humans and birds are not transferable one to another. So that's fortunate for us.

CURWOOD: Whatever got you started hand-feeding birds?

WIBERG: Well, I think what probably attracted my attention in the beginning was, I'd been feeding birds with my bird feeders back in Wilmington, Mass, for 25 years. And I noticed early on that the chickadees were the very last bird to fly away when I went out to restock the feeders. So I had, once in a great while I'd seen a picture of a black-capped chickadee standing on a human hand. And I decided one day to see, where the birds in my back yard seemed to be quite accustomed to my presence, to see if I could actually get one of them on my hand. So I set up a stepladder in the back yard, took the feeder down, put it in the house, and became in effect a substitute bird feeder. And after three or four weekends of trying this, in January I think it was, a chickadee came down and stood on my hand and took some seed. And his fellow travelers saw what was happening, and eventually many of them began to hand-feed also.

CURWOOD: Hugh, before we go --


CURWOOD: I just have to ask you about your other life.

WIBERG: Okay, and believe me, I do have another life.

CURWOOD: You grow giant pumpkins?

WIBERG: Yes I do. I am the director of an esoteric organization here in New England called the New England Pumpkin Growers Association, with over 500 members. We dedicate ourselves in a lighthearted manner to the fine sport hobby of growing these monster, giant pumpkins that you see at the fairs every fall. My personal best pumpkin, largest pumpkin, was a 674-pounder that I grew two years ago, that came in fifth in the all-New England fair. That year there was a 920-pounder grown that came in first place.

(Loud chirps, wings)

CURWOOD: Hugh Wiberg's book is called Hand-Feeding Backyard Birds. Thanks for taking this time with us today.

WIBERG: My pleasure.



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