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Rated: E · Monologue · Nature · #1151006
Cardinals have split personalities and attitudes. Proof? Just wait until one bites you.
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, the kind with wings.

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 scientist with a bird population study. We would catch birds in mist nets, put a small numbered metal band on their leg, weigh and measure them, and let them go. Often we would recapture a bird and could tell how long it had been in the area, and assess general health by rechecking the weight and feather condition.

What is a mist net you may ask. They are 12 to 18 meters long, 2 meters high, and stretched between poles. Usually we had 6 nets up each day in the field. The mesh of a net is very fine and the birds can't see it. 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 too, 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 big honker. And it's quite powerful with lots of leverage. After all, Cardinals eat seeds and nuts, and crack them open with that bill.

Here is where the fun really starts. The thing to remember about Cardinals is they bite. Hard. Want to know what it feels like? Okay, do this. 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 hard on the handles and don't let go, but not so hard that you break the skin. Shake the pliers around a little. Get the idea?

So now I'm ready 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 all calm and cute looking until your hand gets close. Then they whack out and go for the fingers. Quick, look for a 'chew' toy. Better a tasty stick gets chomped than me. This proud fellow happily grabs onto the stick, and after a five minute contest of wills I have him loose and into a small transport bag. I collect a couple of warblers and a wren from the other nets, stash each one in its own bag, and head back to the banding station.

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. The band is attached and the number read back and verified. Now the length of his tail is recorded and it's time to measure his wing. While I'm distracted by extending his wing to get 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. Got to finish that wing measurement and then weigh him.

Slow deep breaths, stay calm. Sounds like Lamaze class doesn't it? I knew that breathing stuff would come in handy one day. For me. Finish measuring and get his wing tucked back in. Now somebody find me a 'chew' toy! 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. Finally. He has certainly made an impression. Literally. I've got a tiny little blood blister where he latched on. This dude is going to get weighed in the bag. Then I'll weigh the bag by itself and subtract to get the weight of the Cardinal. Clever idea isn't it?

Now it's time to let this rascal loose in the world again. He has clamped down on 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 redefined 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 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. Guess it doesn't meet with his standards. He gives a disdainful look and takes off complaining loudly to his friends about the indignity of it all.

Bet he won't be whining when that cute little Cardinal girlie we banded earlier flies over and whispers, "It's just sooo cute. See, I've got one too." Ah, love.
© Copyright 2006 Eric Brierley (txbirder at Writing.Com). All rights reserved.
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