notes of two bird whisperers

It doesn't have the same ring to it as lion taming, but Sam and I are on our way to becoming bird tamers in our own right. It started with a loud buzzing sound inside the cabin.

It doesn’t have the same ring to it as lion taming, but Sam and I are on our way to becoming bird tamers in our own right.

It started with a loud buzzing sound inside the cabin. I had propped the door open to keep it cool inside and was walking in and out, re-potting our seedlings. Such a nice day, with the fresh breeze lazily moving the strips of orange flagging tape that we had hung inside our front windows to deter birds from flying into them. Until that buzz, almost a drone, caught my ear. It sounded too loud for a bee—maybe a hornet. I went back inside to investigate.

A female rufous hummingbird was whirring around the flagging tape and uttering distressed “chit chit” sounds (which bore an alarming resemblance to a very similar English swearword). How to get her back outside? Here was the opportunity to finally capitalize on my childhood years as a budgie owner. Not infrequently had I had to catch them back then.

Slowly, I advanced with open hands on the hummingbird and then very quickly caught her. As I walked to the door with her, her almost weightless body so tiny inside the cage of my hands, I saw the end of her long, needle-like beak stick out between my fingers. When I opened my hands, she whirred into the next tree and began preening herself—a very awkward looking procedure when it came to the feathers on her upper chest and wings, because of her tusk of a beak.

I wished her good luck and expected that was the end of it, but the following day, I was pressed into a repeat performance when the hummingbird had again found her way inside the cabin, to the flagging tape. After that, we removed the tape.

Sam, not to be outdone, revealed himself to be a sparrow whisperer mere days later. There was a white-crowned sparrow casualty. It had flown against a window and was lying unconscious on the cold ground. Our usual procedure of putting the bird on a comfortably warm hot water bottle, safely up off the ground had no effect on this little guy. Half an hour later, he was still lying on his side, beak open. We had things we wanted to do and couldn’t keep an eye on him, so we decided to put him in a cardboard box, closed off on top with a piece of chicken wire, and take him inside to evaluate his process later.

The best place to put him was upstairs, where it was quiet and out of reach of the dogs. After making him comfortable, we carried on with our day, checking on him now and then. A couple hours later, we were happy to see that he had recovered. Unfortunately to such an extent that he had broken out of the cardboard box and was now fluttering around inside our bedroom. The obvious thing to do was open the window that he was flying around in front of, leaving us little souvenirs of his visit on our pillows underneath.

After disassembling the sliding window however (the mosquito screen was already in), the sparrow still couldn’t find the opening in it. We waited as he flew around, explored our bedroom and finally perched on a nail in the log wall that we hadn’t even known was there.

“And now? Should we try to catch him?”

Sam asked. The sparrow sat comfortably on his perch like a budgie and looked at us. I wasn’t too sure we could catch him like this, not in a corner or against a window, not focussed on anything else. Sam had already walked over to the sparrow who didn’t seem shy at all.

“Maybe if you just hold out your index finger like a perch in front of him and very gently push against his belly,” I suggested, “maybe he’ll step onto it.” Sam, whispering sweet words to the unperturbed sparrow, did just that, and the sparrow stepped on his finger without hesitation, just like a regular old budgie. “Wow, look at that,” Sam breathed. “A wild bird.” Slowly, he walked over to the window, the sparrow clutching his finger, both of them only looking mildly surprised. At the window, however, the bird did not want to leave.

“OK, now what?” Sam wondered, uncomfortably crouched by the window with his sparrow-endowed hand sticking outside. “Maybe I move him up and down a bit.” The sparrow hung on fiercely for a while then finally released his grip and flew off into a tree.

I wonder if that’s how lion tamers got their start?

Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon

River south of Whitehorse.