A Bird in the Hand Is Best

Katy Duffy1

ABSTRACTFor a North American Bird Conservation Plan to succeed, the general public must support protection of migratory birds. Many of these birds are exquisite gems, delightful bundles of energy that flit constantly and often are found in dense foliage, high up in trees. Most people never have seen these birds. How can the average person be expected to care about birds that he or she cannot find? This is where a bird in the hand comes in. Show people a bird up close and they cannot help but be captivated. Common responses include "Wow! I didn't knew they were so small, so colorful, so beautiful, so soft ..." This paper discusses ways to have a bird in the hand, ways to have a bird almost in the hand, and ways of packaging a bird in the hand.


Ways to have a bird almost in the hand include watching birds at feeders; watching birds in a place where birds fly close (e.g., hummingbirds at feeders at The Nature Conservancy's Ramsey Canyon Preserve in Arizona; using a spotting scope focused on stationary birds; and looking at slides/videos of closeup views of birds).

The typical response to closeup shots of birds is "oooh! aaaah!" While this is not personal or experiential, slides and videos work very well for general audiences, large audiences, and nature clubs in the winter when most migratory birds are far away. Program presenters can easily include an explanation of the problems facing migratory birds and can give the audience positive things to do, such as supporting habitat preservation or planting native vegetation.


Programs incorporating mounts, study skins, and bird parts provide an opportunity to see birds close up, and in some cases, to handle the birds. While mounted birds and study skins usually cannot be touched, bird wings, tails, and feet can be passed around. Many people love to touch feathers; those who do not want to touch have no choice and often are surprised at what various feathers feel like. Mounts and study skins that cannot be passed around still can be admired at a closer distance than would be possible in the field.

One way to have a live bird in the hand is to use injured birds that have been rehabilitated. Birds that cannot be released are a wonderful educational tool for adult and school groups. These birds allow close inspection as well as a chance to educate the public about human impacts on bird populations and individuals. Most rehabbers do not use passerines as display birds, so this technique works best for raptors.

There are several ways to have live, healthy, wild birds in the hand. For passerines, banding demonstrations are held at Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survival (MAPS) stations and other projects. Raptor banding demonstrations, offered each weekend during September and October at Cape May, New Jersey, attract large audiences. I have banded owls during migration at Cape May each fall since 1980 and have had success with owl demonstrations. I bring an owl captured for banding at night to a location where people can see it without interrupting the banding project. Lucky observers get to release a Saw-whet Owl by perching the owl on their upturned hand, letting go with the other hand, and waiting for the owl to fly when it is ready. Based on positive feedback, banding demonstrations leave lasting impressions.

Songbirds in the hand are as captivating as raptors. Visitors to songbird banding projects get to gorge themselves on close views of tiny but colorful birds. Some visitors stay to apprentice and eventually become skilled assistants or banders themselves.

Researchers sometimes think it would be difficult to conduct field studies with observers or unskilled assistants hanging around and getting in the way. What could be a better way to recruit and train new researchers! Allowing newcomers to witness and eventually assist in ongoing projects, including banding and bird surveys, may engender lifelong interest. Nationwide bird surveys (e.g., Breeding Bird Survey) involve so-called amateurs, the people whose day job does not relate to birds, but these people frequently are the real experts. The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology has recognized the value of training volunteers and so has developed a citizen-science bird monitoring program.

A myriad of bird-centered activities exist. Here are some that have been received well by the public:

I have conducted the International Migratory Bird Day-North American Migration Count for several years as a ranger-led activity, enlisting the participation of the public. The results have been overwhelmingly positive. Although weather in Wyoming in early May makes counting birds a challenge, the participants, including those new to enjoying birds as well as skilled birders, enjoy group efforts at birding with a purpose.

I have taken the same approach with elementary school children. For several springs, I have had kids in grades 1-4 conduct bird surveys following an indoor training session involving slides, study skins, and mounts. Having kids work in teams to conduct bird surveys keeps them occupied and learning. A measure of competitiveness helps, too. Kids also enjoy banding demonstrations. Working with kids means accepting a level of chaos. Strict discipline could leave a negative impression; the idea is for kids to go away thinking that birds are fun!

Taking a group on a walk through areas likely to harbor a variety and abundance of birds allows people to experience birds and can be almost like having a bird in the hand. In addition to identifying birds, leaders have the opportunity to talk about conservation concerns, especially the plight of migratory birds.

For those new to enjoying birds, an organized bird walk might be intimidating and too fast-paced. For this reason, special programs for beginners often are developed. For example, I have presented a program each week during summer called "An Introduction to the Joy of Birds." Five to ten people participate in each 2-hour program. We cover some of the basics: Looking for field marks, how to use a field guide and binoculars, how habitat meets birds' requirements, and an overview of the nesting cycle and migration.

These are just a few of the interpretive activities that can be used to involve the public and arouse their concern for migratory birds. Programs on related topics can include reference to migratory birds and their conservation: A naturalist at Grand Teton National Park incorporates an explanation of Neotropical migratory birds and their conservation into her evening slide program on birds. Another naturalist ends a slide program on raptors by emphasizing the dependence of bird-eating raptors on migratory passerines. Migratory birds can even be interjected into programs on topics that are seemingly unrelated: A naturalist at Grand Teton ends her tour of an Indian Arts Museum with a connection to Neotropical migratory birds and indigenous peoples of Mexico and Central America.

For any of these activities, organization is the key to an effective program. A themes-goals-objectives approach is standard fare for interpreters. This technique works very well for those new to interpretation and is quite straightforward. First develop a theme, a sentence that states the idea behind the program. For instance, the theme of this article is: A bird in the hand is one of the most effective ways to reach the public and instill an appreciation of birds.

Next, determine your goals, that is, why you are doing the program. For instance, the goals of this article are: (1)To inspire readers to share their love and concern for birds; and (2) To convince readers that involving the public in birds through interpretive programs will advance migratory bird conservation.

Finally, determine your objectives, measures of what you expect your audience to learn or do as a result of the activity. My objectives here are:

(1) Most readers will present at least one new bird-related activity for the public in the next year; and (2) most readers will demonstrate a commitment to bird conservation by encouraging an interest in birds in the people they encounter in their daily lives at least three times each month.

Articulating the theme, goals, and objectives for a program makes organizing it much easier. Anything that does not develop the theme, or contribute to achievement of the goals or objectives, does not belong. Prepare an outline that develops the theme in an understandable manner. Do not be shy about stating and re-stating the theme or goals. Participants should not have to guess what points you are trying to make. This method of organization makes formal programs effective, and can be readily adapted to spontaneous activities such as banding demonstrations.

Organization, practice, and polish will help to refine the program, but genuine enthusiasm will be the magic ingredient. There is no substitute: Enthusiasm combined with knowledge is incredibly effective. An ideal presenter combines a sincere commitment to protecting birds and an authentic concern for people with a strong knowledge base.

Be available for questions after the program-even months and years after the program. Help solve mystery bird questions. Share bird song tapes. Research complex questions about bird ecology. Even if you never give an actual presentation, you can influence the people that you encounter so they, too, appreciate birds. Practice on your non-birding friends. Reaching the public one-by-one may be very energy-intensive, but the results will be worthwhile.

Each year, millions of people visit national, state, county, and regional parks; they form a somewhat captive audience that can be reached via non-personal approaches, too. Show canned videos and slide programs in park visitor centers and nature centers to enlighten general audiences about the fascination and plight of migratory birds. Bird checklists and bird-finding guides have wide distribution and can include information on the status of migratory birds in each area. For example, the Grand Teton bird-finding guide, which is distributed to about 2,000 birders each year, includes information on Partners in Flight. National park newspapers also can be vehicles for informing park visitors about Partners in Flight and the problems faced by migratory birds; about 250,000 copies of the summer Grand Teton park newspaper are printed each year, and these have contained information on Partners in Flight for the past several years. Such venues, even though they are non-personal, have the capacity to reach great numbers of people and hopefully affect their outlook and concern for migratory bird conservation.

To achieve public acceptance of the Bird Conservation Plan, we first need to enlarge the size of the migratory bird constituency. To do so, let's get more people hooked on birds by sharing our passion for them. Once people are concerned about birds, the Conservation Plan will have a more positive reception.

An awareness of birds provides a doorway into the natural world, a door that all of us have walked through, much to our delight. Let's help others through that door. It will enhance the quality of their lives. It will build a constituency for migratory birds.

We protect only what we know and love. To spread our concern and love for birds, try a bird in the hand!


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1 Grand Teton National Park
Moose, Wyoming 83012