I’ve Been Bitten by a Bird
“Bloody hell, look at that bill,” he exclaimed and then screamed. If I had more time I would have warned him, but of course it wouldn’t have helped. My friend was a fanatical bird bander visiting from Great Britain and there was no way he was going to pass up untangling a beautiful male Northern Cardinal from the mist net. He was still talking about it after his finger had stopped throbbing and all that was left was a faint triangular mark. Big beak or not, bird banders can’t resist handling a new bird and putting a metal ring on its leg. And I am one of them.
Beak size alone isn’t the whole story behind the crushing ability of a bird because the beak can’t generate the force. The beak transmits the force created by the muscles around the jaw which are positioned at the back of the bird’s head. Head size, particularly width, coupled with bill size are the best indicators for bite force. Most birds that fit this description are armed to crush seeds or hard fruit to eat, like our big-billed Northern Cardinal. A macaw has the crushing power of 2,500 lbs.
Its not just crushing bills that can be hazardous to a bird bander. Seemingly dainty bills can be painful too. Take the butcher bird, better known as the Northern Shrike. It isn’t a very big bird. On the rare occasion that we capture one in a mist net, it seems calm and looks like it would be easy to untangle. But taking a bird from the fine threads of a mist net require rather nimble fingers. Gloves usually make it impossible to untangle songbirds safely. The first time I removed a shrike was a bloody process. The shrike’s hooked bill is razor sharp and lightning fast. With just a quick move of the head, my finger was dripping blood. It made it all too clear why other songbirds fear the butcher bird.
I have witnessed crushing force, slashing force, how about pounding force? That brings me to the Pileated Woodpecker. They are not often captured in songbird mist nets. Nearly the size of a crow, they are simply too big and can escape easily. Once I captured one and a bystander asked if they could photograph it. As I held the bird in a special grip by its legs for the photographer, it began to strike the base of my thumb with its bill. At first it was light, but the pressure of the strikes grew and grew until suddenly, my hand was like the tree trunk that it hammers. Within just a few strikes there was a hole into my flesh. High speed photography has revealed that the woodpecker hammers a tree at the rate of over 16 times a second, or nearly 1,000 blows per minute. It does this with an impact velocity of over 1,900 feet per second or 1,300 mph, twice the speed of a bullet. That was enough. I let the majestic bird fly away.