From Slingshots to Ink Stamps: The Fearless Birder

There was a time in the past — and maybe it’s still true for some — when the phrase “bird lover” might have conjured images of a frail, meek, soft-spoken milquetoast toting his binoculars through the woods. That image of birders has been reinforced in popular entertainment, as in the character of Wallace Wimple on the 1940s radio show Fibber McGee and Molly. Usually addressed as “Wimp” by McGee, the timid Mr. Wimple would speak in his soft, mournful voice about his greatest joy in life: watching birds.

But the perception of bird lovers as feeble ecological looky-loos doesn’t come near to describing the full spectrum of active bird lovers. It certainly doesn’t describe men like Edward J. Reimann, who, in the following Post article of May 23, 1942, describes how his love of birds — which began as a love for slingshots — led him from bird watching on the ground to dodging attacks from predatory birds while scaling towering trees and sheer cliffs. Far from a passive pastime, the dangerous and adventuresome ornithological work he and others like him performed, without remuneration, helped track and save bird populations in the United States.

Today, bird lovers don’t suffer so much from that old nerdish stigma. What’s more, a report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reveals some of the good this avian avocation did for the culture and economy in 2011:

For the most part, bird lovers are content to watch from a distance. Only a few are still doing what Reimann describes here: climbing hundreds of feet up trees and cliffs to tag birds. Unlike the author, though, today’s taggers are now trained, closely regulated biologists who track hatchlings to study bird populations and migration patterns.

But it all started with passionate amateurs like Reimann. There is no doubt that the work he describes doing here contributed to a larger, successful effort to bring back the American bald eagle. Poaching by “eggers,” poisoning by DDT, and human encroachment on eagle nesting sites pushed bald eagles onto the endangered species list in 1967. But efforts and political pressures from individuals and groups were so effective that, on August 9, 2007, bald eagle populations had grown so large and widespread that they were removed from the endangered species list.


Bird Lovers Aren’t Sissies

By Edward J. Reimann as told to Daniel P. Mannix

Originally published on May 23, 1942

In the last ten years I have probably climbed about fifteen miles, straight up. All this distance has been either up the sides of precipices or tree trunks some eighty feet above the ground. For, in common with several hundred other young men, my hobby is banding birds of prey, and those are the places where the great raptors nest.

I first became interested in birds through my early dexterity with a slingshot. My gang all carried slingshots and we used to practice on the glass insulators on the telephone poles.

One day I rashly took a shot at a lineman who was bending over at the top of a pole to fix one of the broken insulators. The buckshot I was using sent up a puff of dust from the seat of his trousers, and I wouldn’t have believed that it was possible for anyone to get down a pole and start after me as rapidly as that man did. In fact, I was so interested in his technique that I forgot to run until it was almost too late. He chased me right under our back porch. After that, some of the neighbors came around to complain to my family: “Why can’t Bud be like other boys and amuse himself harmlessly by shooting the birds in the park?”

I spent many hours after that wandering through the park, keeping a lookout for our feathered friends, but, as time passed, I became more and more interested in the birds for themselves. One day I had such a good time watching a sparrow trying to get an oversized stick into his nesting hole that I forgot all about my slingshot. Knowing what a razzing I would get if the gang heard about it, I took care not to mention my lapse.

Full of repentance, I hurried out the next morning and knocked over several sparrows. But when I came to examine my bag, I noticed that one was different in shape and plumage from the others. I had always reasoned that sparrows were just sparrows. As nearly every member of the gang was collecting either postage stamps or cigar bands, I decided those fields were getting overcrowded, so I would specialize on birds.

Woodland Conversion

While wandering through the woods, adding to my hobby with the slingshot, I often saw the figure of a strange-looking man crawling through bushes or wading streams. All the children in our neighborhood were afraid of him, and I took good care to keep out of his way. But one day while I was preparing to slip the old Mary-Ann to a red-eyed vireo, the stranger shouted at me across a ravine to wait a minute. He explained he was Richard Miller, president of the Miller Ornithological Club. He felt it was a good idea to tell me that both Nature societies and the game commission frowned on shooting songbirds with a slingshot.

I confided to Mr. Miller my great problem — that although I had no great desire to shoot birds, it was a well-known and generally recognized fact that all bird lovers were pantywaists.

Mr. Miller smiled a grim smile. “You come bird banding with me, my boy,” he suggested. “I’ll show you some excitement.”

It seems the Department of the Interior issues little aluminum bands, each one stamped with a number and the request, “Notify Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington, D.C.” Anyone finding a banded bird is asked to send the number of the band and the place where the bird was found to the service. It is up to the bird banders to get these bands around the feet of the wild birds.

This performance is not so crazy as it might seem. Because of bird banding, government zoologists are able to trace the great tides of migration. Our federal and state game laws are the best in the world. They make it possible for any American to hunt who owns a state license, while in European countries hunting has long ago been restricted to wealthy men who could afford to keep private game preserves.

Mr. Miller’s desire to make me an ornithologist was supported by the telephone linemen. One of them even presented me with a pair of climbing irons and I acted as Mr. Miller’s assistant, climbing trees to band young birds in their nests. My specialty was crows.

I had got expert at this and had begun to think that Mr. Miller had exaggerated ideas about bird banding being a dangerous sport. Then the old ornithologist took me with him one day to band young fish eagles.

The fish eagle, or osprey, is one of our largest birds of prey. Only the bald and the golden eagles are larger. This nest was 70 feet up, on the top of an old white oak growing in the middle of a swamp. No bird had ever attacked me yet, and although I saw the parent ospreys flying around suggestively, I was more worried about climbing up 70 feet of smooth bark than I was about their powerful beaks and talons.

I put on my irons and started up. The parent birds were hovering around the nest, screaming at me. I noticed that instead of carrying their long feet neatly tucked up underneath them the way a good bird should, they were letting their legs bang down in an unpleasant fashion. However, I paid little attention to it then.

When I was about 60 feet up, I stopped for breath. It is surprising how much higher a tree seems when you are looking down from the top of it. I could see Mr. Miller far below me, looking like a dwarf with a huge head and no body. From my height I could see for miles over the swamplands, coated with brown marsh grass and veined with narrow waterways. Just then there was a sharp hiss as though a shell had whistled past me, and my hair was blown back by the accompanying breeze.

The female osprey could not have missed me by more than a foot or two. I clung to the trunk and watched her pull out of her dive and go zooming up again. She shot straight up into the air, her wings full spread, sharply etched against the deep blue of the sky. I would have liked to explain to her that I didn’t want to hurt her babies, only to put the bands around their legs.

I saw her turn in mid-air and look down on me. For a few seconds the great hawk hung motionless, studying my position. Then she closed her wings for the dive.

As I clung to the smooth tree trunk, there was nothing I could do. With her wings close against her body, the hawk came dropping down toward me at unbelievable speed. Every second her fierce head grew bigger and bigger. I could hear the moaning of the air through her feathers and at the last moment I ducked my head down into my arms. Again I could hear the rush of the bird’s wings, and I believe that her talons actually passed through my hair. I looked down to see her banking out into the wind as she came around for another stroke.

But I knew why the bird had missed me. I was so close against the trunk that she could not get a fair shot at my head. I suddenly realized that if I could only get up underneath the nest, the bird could not reach me at all. I started up as fast as I could, and then suddenly the strength seemed to go out of my arms.

I had clung to the side of the tree so long that I had wasted my strength. Now my arms felt numb. There was no feeling at all in the fingertips. Even to move my arms was an effort.

But Mr. Miller had been watching me. “There’s a knob on the other side of the trunk!” he called. “As big as a man’s head! If you can reach it, you can hang on long enough to get your strength back!”

A Break with Thoreau

The knob was only two feet away, but my muscles seemed paralyzed. I dragged my heavy arms over the bark until my fingers caught of their own accord, before I dared to shift my hooks. As I worked around the tree the osprey stopped diving at me. Apparently the wind was wrong for her there and she was afraid of dashing herself against the trunk. Slowly, I inched toward the knob until my fingers gripped it and I clung weakly.

After I had recovered somewhat, I was able to climb the last few feet to the nest and band the young birds. When I reached the ground again, Mr. Miller was leaning against the tree.

Very casually he remarked, “I must have been just about your age when I first climbed that tree and the osprey dived at me just the same way.”

“Do you really think it was the same bird?” I asked.

“There’s no way of telling,” he admitted. “But now, with bird banding, we’ll be able to know those things.”

I spent happy hours after that wading through swamps up to my waist looking for osprey nests. Each nest and each pair of birds was a different problem. Some of the nesting trees were so rotten that my spurs wouldn’t hold in the crumbling wood, and sometimes the nests were built out on the end of long limbs where it was almost impossible to reach them. Occasionally I would find the marks of another climber’s irons in a tree and after a while I could even identify certain men by their way of using the hooks.

I had always supposed that bird lovers were either benevolent old gentlemen or sentimental ladies who put out suet in winter with holly wreaths tied around it. But at the end of a couple of months I began to realize that there were ornithologists operating more in the tradition of Legs Diamond than Henry David Thoreau.

Keep ’Em Flying

For some reason known only to themselves, a number of wealthy men have adopted as their hobby the collecting of birds’ eggs. Possibly as little boys they were frustrated during bird’s nesting by some Audubon aunt and have been getting their revenge ever since. As a result of their activities, robbing the nests of rare birds was once quite a widespread business. Today, because of very strict state and federal laws, nest robbing is no longer profitable. It is impossible to sell eggs, and you can be fined as much as $500 for having them in your possession.

The demand for eggs created a group of men who were known as “eggers” and were spoken of with feeling by game commissioners, members of the Audubon societies, and nature clubs. Egging for the most part was strictly illegal, and eggers were simply high-class poachers. But in addition to being expert ornithologists, eggers were usually skillful woodsmen with perseverance and courage. Bird banders don’t wear lavender either, and we are as determined to protect the birds as the eggers were to destroy them.

One day several of us were called into conference by Richard Pough, director of the Hawk and Owl Society. For several years, eggers had been cleaning out the nests of American eagles so systematically that one year not a single young bird was raised in a New Jersey eyrie. “Keep ’em flying,” said Mr. Pough to us. Then he outlined his plan. He wanted one of the banders to climb to each eagle’s nest in turn and stamp the eggs with a rubber stamp dipped in indelible ink. The slightest imperfection of the egg makes it worthless to collectors, so this device would protect the eggs and yet not injure the little eagles growing up within.

Now, although it is many years since a pair of nesting eagles have attacked a climber, that man had to be put together like a cane chair in order to hold the inquest. But the normal danger lies in climbing the giant trees where eagles build their eyries and then crawling over the sides of the huge nests, 80 or 90 feet above the ground. It seemed to me that the ospreys I had been banding had already picked out the biggest and toughest trees to nest in, so I volunteered.

Half a dozen of us left the next morning before daybreak in Mr. Pough’s car. I was carrying a knapsack containing my climbing irons, 200 feet of half-inch rope, an inked pad, and a rubber stamp reading, PROTECTED BY THE NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF AUDUBON SOCIETIES. We drove along sand trails through the pine barrens until Mr. Pough stopped the car and we started through a jungle I wouldn’t have believed existed north of the Amazon. The green brier was so bad in places that we had to cut our way through with a machete. We struggled through bogs and waded across black mud flats that held you like a mixture of glue and quicksand.

At last Mr. Pough stopped and pointed. “There’s a nest,” he said.

Ahead of us was the biggest sour-gum tree I have ever seen. It must have been more than 100 feet high and some 20 feet around the base. At the top was a pile of sticks nearly the size of a log cabin. Over this were flying a pair of eagles, their white tails and heads gleaming silver in the sun.

The tree was so tremendous it presented almost a flat surface and I couldn’t hook my spurs in. It was like climbing the side of a wall. I tried and tried, and finally had to give up.

“It’s a pity you only have those little lineman’s hooks,” said Mr. Pough regretfully. “I’ll have to buy you a set of lumberjack’s spurs.”

But I had an idea. Beside the sour gum was a tall thin tulip. It was only 40 or 50 feet high, but the two trees were only about 15 feet apart. If I could get to the top of the tulip, I might be able to make a traverse over to the sour gum.

I climbed the tulip as high as I could, and then, when the slender top of the tree began to sway dangerously, I dug my irons in and looked the situation over. Across from me, an enormous branch of the sour gum, as big around as the trunks of most trees, ran off, and I decided to try to rope that branch and swing across.

Coiling up the end of my rope, I tried to throw it over the branch. After half a dozen attempts it went over and the coils dropped on the other side. Then I tried to flip part of the rope I still held around the swinging end and draw it in. This is tricky to do. You have to snap the end of the rope in your hand like a whiplash and try to make it twist around the hanging end and hold long enough for you to jerk both ends in.

When I finally had both ends of the rope in my hands and a loop over the branch, I steadied myself for a moment and then let go with my spurs. I shot across the space between the two trees in a long arc, swinging like a pendulum. Unable to use my hands because I was hanging onto the rope, I struck at the sour gum with my irons and managed to hook them in the great trunk. The channels in the bark were deep enough to give me a finger hold and slowly I worked myself up, clinging like a chipmunk until I could crawl out on the crotch of the branch.

“Stop awhile and get your wind back!” Mr. Pough shouted. But I thought the worst was over and started up toward the nest without waiting for a rest. I came out over the roof of the forest, 100 feet up. The tops of the trees lay below me like a woven green mat. It looked solid enough to walk on, almost. High up in the sky there were two dots — the parent eagles flying about, watching me with their telescopic eyes.

The gigantic mound of sticks that was the nest was so big and stretched out so far on every side above me that there was no way I could get over it. It seemed to be built on exactly the same principle as the round disks put around the trunks of fruit trees to keep squirrels from climbing up and eating the fruit.

The only thing to do seemed to be to crawl along the bottom of the thing upside down, like a fly, until I came to the side, and then climb up that. But the nest was so carefully woven together and the sticks so tightly pressed down by the great weight above them that I couldn’t even get my fingers between them for a grip.

I rested on my hooks and thought the situation over. If I could only throw my rope over the nest itself, then I could go up the rope hand over hand and into the eyrie. After making throw after throw, I finally managed to toss the rope over the nest and snag the dangling end. Then I made a firm loop around the nest, pulled my hooks out of the tree, and began to climb up the side of the eyrie.

Every time I writhed a few inches up the rope a shower of dirt sifted out through the mass of sticks and sprayed over me. The stuff stung my eyes like powdered acid, and in a few seconds I was half blind. My hooks were useless here and it seemed impossible to find even a toehold in the basket weave of the sticks. But I dragged myself up until my fingers could grab the edge of the nest. Then I was up and over, sprawling beside the two big white eggs, trying to rub the smart out of my eyes.

In two weeks we inked every clutch of eagles’ eggs in New Jersey. We did more than $1,000 worth of damage to the eggers’ business.

I had begun to think that bird banding had nothing left to show me when I happened to overhear a fellow bird bander describing the death of a friend of his who had fallen out of his double bowline and plunged 600 feet.

“Six hundred feet! Why, there isn’t a tree that high in the whole country!”

“I know it,” he retorted. “This fellow was banding falcons on the side of a cliff.”

Here was something I’d been missing. “I’d certainly like to band some young falcons,” I said hopefully.

The bander looked at me scornfully and moved away.

I soon found out that my friends would tell me all about their private lives, lend me money and even give me their girls’ telephone numbers, but as soon as the conversation drifted around to falcons’ eyries, all grew mute.

Although falcons nest only on the sides of the highest and most perpendicular cliffs they can find, this does not always protect them. Unfortunately, no two falcons’ eggs are marked exactly alike, and eggers collect the different color patterns as stamp collectors collect stamps for watermarks, cancellations and margins. So any bird bander who knows the site of a falcon’s eyrie is sworn to secrecy.

A friend and I decided to discover our own falcon’s nest. We spent three days searching through the Pocono Mountains. Then while taking a short cut over back roads, we emerged into a lovely hidden valley. Across from us shot up a huge cliff, its base washed by a broad stream. High up on the dark-red face of the cliff showed a few tiny silver vertical streaks. Those streaks could be only the white droppings, or “ mutes,” of a pair of nesting falcons.

At first there were small saplings we could cling to as we pulled ourselves up. Then we reached the bare rock. We worked our way up from ledge to ledge, testing each handhold before we trusted our weight to it. In places the rock was slippery because of trickles of water, each no bigger than a thread. Sometimes several of these little streams met, and the rock would be covered with lichens, as dangerous as ice. Caught in among the crevices were little pockets of earth, holding a few vines and sometimes a tiny bush. It was always a great temptation to grab these bushes, but as they often came right out of the pocket, roots and all, it was a temptation I learned to resist.

Suddenly from the eyrie in the cliff above us, the mother falcon burst out. She circled over the valley, screaming with rage, looking like a giant swallow as she turned and twisted. A passing crow, attracted by the noise, passed close to the eyrie. That was where he made his big mistake. The falcon gave him one terrible blow with her hind talons. The crow gave a scream of surprise and terror and, closing his wings, dropped into a thicket of laurel that fringed the edge of the stream.

When we reached the top of the cliff, we sat on the edge with our feet dangling over the brink of the precipice and caught our breaths. It had taken us two hours to get where we were, and yet all we had to do was to let ourselves go and we’d be down again in ten seconds.

My friend was to lower me over the cliff to the eyrie, so we looked around for a good tree about which he could snub the rope. We picked a hemlock some 20 feet back from the cliff edge. I slung my camera over my back, made sure I had my bands and pliers in my pocket, and got into the double bowline at the end of the rope. Then, lying flat on my stomach, I inched backward off the edge of the cliff, gripping the rope with both hands.

The cliff sloped out slightly here, and I crawled down over the rocks, shouting, “A little more line! A little line!” as I went. He payed off the rope inch by inch. After a few feet, the cliff fell away perfectly sheer. I began to work my way down the face of this wall, my whole weight on the half-inch rope. Above me, the rope groaned as the snub tore into the bark of the tree. It was taut as a banjo string. If it encountered a thin-edged rock set at just the right angle, it would be cut through.

Abruptly, the wall on which I was climbing stopped. I had come to the beginning of the overhang. The cliff was undercut here, and the face I was on projected out like the eaves of a house. From now on I would have to be lowered through space like a spider.

“I’m going to swing clear!” I shouted up. There was no answer. The acoustics of the cliff cut off my voice.

As he was still slowly slacking off the rope, I let go of the rock, and the next second I was hanging in mid-air. It was a horrible, helpless sensation. Slowly the rope started to twist. I began to spin around, going faster and faster. The rope paused, then began to unwind in the opposite direction. I was so dizzy I no longer had any idea which was up and down. Suddenly I felt afraid that I might be leaning too far over on one side. I tried to straighten myself. Instantly my legs shot up into the air and I nearly fell out of the bowline. My exposure meter fell out of my camera case and I saw it hit a rock and explode like a bomb. Then right across from me I saw the eyrie with three little birds like fluffy powder puffs looking at me in solemn amazement with their great brown eyes.

I grabbed desperately at a bit of rock and managed to stop spinning. My friend was steadily lowering me past the eyrie and I yelled until my throat felt skinned. Finally he must have heard me, for I stopped sinking. Then I tried to swing around and get a footing on the nesting ledge.

Swish! A rush of air slashed my face. For a second I was puzzled, and then I saw the mother falcon shooting up for another blow. Remembering the crow, I decided to work fast. I pushed away from the cliff with one foot and started myself swinging. After a couple of pushes I was close enough to get my footing on the ledge. Under the shelter of the rocks the mother falcon couldn’t reach me, and I banded the babies in peace.

Since then I have probably banded more than 100 young falcons and eagles, and many, many ospreys. But someday before I get too old, I would like to say I had banded a harpy eagle. These giant birds are among the largest and most powerful winged creatures in the world. They nest in great trees near the headwaters of the Amazon. Explorers have seen their nests. I have talked to a man who knows where such a nest is. He tells me the nest is in the top of a tree and the first branch of the tree is 150 feet above the ground. The natives say it is impossible to reach a harpy eagle’s nest. But perhaps by shooting an arrow with a long line tied to it over the lower limbs —well, perhaps it wouldn’t work. But someday I would like to go to South America and have a try at it.