Birds have different degrees of tameness. That is obvious, of course, by comparing different species.
In New England, the House Sparrow will hop around your feet eating dropped french fries. On the other hand, some birds are so shy you hardly ever see them.
In the backyard, Black-capped Chickadees will sometimes eat seeds right out of your hand, while Northern Cardinals fly away when you approach the window.
Birds, however, show various degrees of tameness even within a particular species. Last week, I wrote about two female Wood Ducks at a pond’s edge that were hanging out — with their young ones — with a group of Mallards near the parking lot. I am used to seeing Mallards being brave, or tame, but certainly not Wood Ducks. Most Wood Ducks I have known would have been long gone as soon as a car pulled into the parking lot. Or, for that matter, the Wood Ducks wouldn’t have been hanging out at a pond’s edge with Mallards in the first place.
As another example, last week I was driving by Tilley Pond in Darien. Tilley Pond is located in the middle of town and is fairly busy with people walking, playing or exercising. It is also surrounded by somewhat busy roads. Despite that, over the years I have seen some pretty good birds there. In the winter, there is usually a small flock of Hooded Mergansers. The flock, however, usually stays towards the middle of the pond, especially when people are walking around. I have also seen Great Egrets and Black-crowned Night Herons there. Those species often have individuals on the more tame side.
On this particular day, as I drove past the pond I noticed a Green Heron on the far side of the pond. So, not surprisingly, I pulled over to confirm what I was seeing. I have seen fairly tame Green Herons before, but not in such a public place. There were mothers pushing strollers and toddlers running around the park. I was surprised that the Green Heron remained at the busy side of the pond.
I took a quick walk over toward the bird and grabbed a few photographs. The bird was perfectly healthy and just as beautiful as any other Green Heron I’ve ever seen before.
Every so often you come across a sighting like this. You see hundred typically wary Green Herons and suddenly you have one hunting in a busy suburban park. Central Park in New York City, of course, is a prime example of this. Well, Central Park is obviously more urban than suburban, but you know what I mean.
As a photographer, you love these moments. You try and try to get photos of birds only to have the shy ones fly off well before you are in range for a photo. Then suddenly you come across one that is practically posing for you. Photographers still must respect their subjects and watch for signs of stress. If the behavior changes to the point where the bird seems uncomfortable, the photographer should back away and give the bird its space.
This Green Heron went about its day as if the strollers, toddlers and photographer weren’t even there. It made all the classic heron in poses. It stood with neck outstretched, it hunched down and it stretched its neck and bill towards the water when it zeroed in on prey.
Great Blue Herons are a fine example of this type of behavior. I have seen literally thousands of Great Blue Herons in my life and they are all different. Some, it seems, you can walk up and shake their hands. Others fly off before you even see them, leaving you a glimpse of only their backside.
There are several factors that determine how “tame” a wild bird acts. I am not a bird psychologist, so I will just bring up a few factors that make sense based on my years of watching these magnificent creatures.
Geography seems to play a role. In general, birds in New England are much more wary than birds in Florida. Of course, there are exceptions but I am speaking in general terms. Many parks in Florida have ponds or other bodies of water that are filled with waders (herons, egrets and other tall water birds) only feet away from trails. Waders are much less common in New England and the ones we do have are generally much more cautious.
Time of year also seems to play a role. Sometimes, usually in spring, an overly tame bird is a youngster that is not wise to the ways of the world yet. In winter, when food is scarce, birds are often more tolerant of humans if a food source is near.
Location, separate from geography, can also be a factor. Birds in the backyard are sometimes more tame than individuals of that same species seen at a wildlife refuge or otherwise in the “wild.” I had three overly “tame” Pine Warblers visit my feeders last fall. In the wild, I would never get to within a few feet of Pine Warblers.
Whatever the reason, it’s fun to see these tame birds every once in a while. Thankfully, they are not always so tame. Watching and photographing birds wouldn’t be nearly as fun if the challenge were stripped away.
For the Birds runs Thursdays in The Hour. Chris Bosak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit his website at http://www.birdsofnewengland.com.