Sharp objects and I do not get along.
Just last week, I took off a small corner of my left ring finger tip while slicing a block of cheese.
Not so bad, I thought, I don’t use that finger much anyway.
Hands are the main tools for us humans. And when one of those ten digits goes out of commission, it doesn’t take long to learn what its jobs normally are.
Cut on index finger? Ack! I can’t type!
But a ring finger? No big impact, I figured.
Then I tried to get dressed.
Zippers, it turned out, were a four-finger job: thumb, index, and middle finger to pull, ring finger to keep the fabric taut.
Tightening the laces of my boots — those unappreciated ring fingers provide vital tension for that job, too.
The motions are automatic, done without thinking. Until you can’t do them anymore.
Now that it’s busy time at the bird feeders, I’ve been appreciating the ways birds use their main tool — their beaks.
Those appendages are just as miraculous as our 10-finger tool kit.
Watch your jays, woodpeckers, or nuthatches, with their straight, sturdy bills, and you’ll see they’re experts at the whacking technique.
The triangular beaks of cardinals, grosbeaks and on a smaller scale, sparrows and juncos, are built for cracking. Strong pressure, just like the jaws of a metal nutcracker, is what splits the shell.
Up here in the deep-freeze Rockies, we have winter birds with unique tools that aren’t needed in the milder Tri-State: a pair of gray jays, or camp robbers, and a Clark’s nutcracker, or “Clark,” as we affectionately call him.
Although they’re close cousins of jays, crows, ravens and magpies, their diet is different from that of those omnivores. And their tool kit is, too.
Gray jays love meat. At first glance, their tiny dab of a beak looks useless for eating carcasses frozen hard as a rock.
Until you see the incredible strength that backs up that tool.
Like a hawk, these birds rip off pieces of rock-hard frozen flesh by using torque. They stabilize the food with a foot, and then twist off one bite at a time.
Clark’s neatest trick is inserting and opening his beak to get at the good parts.
Unlike any other bird I can think of, his strength is in the opening of his long, straight bill, not in the closing.
That tool makes short work of spreading the hard, tough scales of the big pinecones he typically depends on, so he can get at the seeds.
But it works great for feeder foods, too.
When we put out a holiday dinner for the birds — a roast turkey with trimmings, and a pumpkin pie — Clark took a decided liking to piecrust.
Slice after slice was quickly denuded of dough, as Clark pried it off by inserting and opening his beak between crust and filling.
And we’re talking frozen-solid pie, which gives you some reckoning of how strong those bill-opening muscles must be.
Meanwhile, chickadees were using their built-in tool kit to nibble off bits of the high-fat crust; blue Steller’s jays were hammering off big bites of filling and crust; and gray jays were ignoring the pie and ripping off turkey meat.
Next time you fill the feeders, spend a little time watching your own birds’ skill with tools. It’s just as enlightening as realizing why a ring finger is important.