In which I learn to pick up birds.

New Zealand’s native wood pigeon, the kererū

I like birds, especially New Zealand birds. They’re beautiful and strange and adaptable creatures.

I’m also just a little tiny bit scared of birds. Blame it on the junior high teacher who showed us Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds in class. There’s something unpredictable about how birds react and all the beaks and pecking and fluttering that freaked me out a bit. I’ve reached a venerable middle age in life and yet I don’t think I’ve held a bird more than a few times. I’ve always been a little scared to. They’re not like cats or dogs (or even rats, which I had a brief flirtation with having as a pet when I was an angsty teenager). 

But I love birds more than I’m scared of ‘em, so I was pretty happy to start doing some weekly volunteering at the NZ Bird Rescue Centre last week. It’s just down the road from my house, and does amazing work rehabilitating and rehoming injured birds, including many of NZ’s native species. It’s a very cool place and I’m really happy to be doing my part there, feeding them, cleaning cages, et cetera. 

Ruru or morepork, native owl.

Of course, one of the major requirements of working in such a place is being able to pick up a bird. In the course of training there last week I went from being twitchy about the notion of picking up a bird to … well, I wouldn’t call myself anywhere near an expert, but I can do it, now. 

I started with fairly docile doves and adorable baby ducklings, learning the art of handling them. Picking up a bird requires speed, strength and gentleness all at the same time. Too hard, you have a dead bird, too soft, and you’ve got an escaped bird. Holding a baby duckling – all fluff and undulating neck, pubescent winglets fidgeting and flippers gyrating – will teach you the art of gentle firm care. 

Over the course of a few days, I moved up the ranks, to feral pigeons (smelly, noisy and bugeyed), adult ducks (surprisingly strong) and one of my personal favourites, New Zealand’s wood pigeon the kererū, which can be the size of a small cat. These are hefty, solid birds, who make a hypnotic whoosh whoosh sound as they bounce around the trees by our house looking for berries to chow down on.

Picking a kererū up requires all one’s gestational bird handling skills. Control the wings, because otherwise it’s like holding a rapidly exploding kite. Hands firm and not shaking. Control the kererū, and you control something deep within yourself. Feel the fluttering feathers, the gentle tremors of something that can fly up into the treetops, in your hands. It’s zen and the art of avian maintenance. 

There’s other birds I’m nowhere near handling yet – long-legged herons, NZ’s punk-rock chicken the pukeko, who boast massive feet that look like they’ll rip you to shreds, compact kingfishers, gorgeous yet dangerous native owls – but in my first few days at bird rescue, I picked up birds.

It’s never too late to turn over a new feather. 

Note: It’s also time for the biggest contest of the year in New Zealand to take wing, the Bird Of The Year voting. Go vote up until Nov. 10 on the bestest bird in all of NZ.