“You’re holding that bird by its feet!” (on approved grips for holding wild birds in research)

When you see a cool picture of a pretty bird that’s been banded, chances are it looks like it’s perching on somebody’s hand. That’s because the bird is being held in a safe grip used by researchers all over the world called the photographer’s grip. In this hold, you slide the bird’s legs through the gap between two of your fingers (which two depends on the size of the bird and the person holding the bird, but for small landbirds it is typically accomplished between the forefinger and the middle finger) and gently-but-firmly pinch the bird’s toes between your thumb and forefingers. 

This young pale-eyed thrush (Turdus leucops) is being held in a modified photographer’s grip for slightly larger birds.

The result is a bird with the whole body visible who cannot escape but is still safely restrained, provided the grip is maintained by a well-trained individual!

Photographer’s grip is not always the safest way to handle birds, and is not the best choice for actually processing a bird to be banded. Some individual birds behave better than others, and a bird in photographer’s grip can flap its wings, which can result in muscle strain. It is important to not keep a wildly-flapping bird in photographers’ grip for long.

So… How do you usually hold birds?

It’s in the classic bander’s grip! Using your forefinger and middle finger, you pinch the bird’s neck on the sides. Don’t worry, they can still breathe perfectly fine thanks to thick layers of floof and a highly flexible+sturdy trachea. I have never seen a bird in any respiratory distress from a proper bander’s grip. The rest of your hand wraps around the bird’s back, taking care to not  apply excessive pressure to the body.

Here, the same thrush is restrained in bander’s grip.

Some banders like to put the birds’ legs between two of their fingers in bander’s grip as well, to stop them from kicking free. A lot of the particularities of holding birds does come down to the species you’re holding, its size and nature, and whatever feels the most safe and comfortable for you to process the bird as efficiently as possible.


 I am not a banding instructor, or a master bander, etc. I am merely a young biologist (if you can even call me that!) trying to find my way in the world. I wrote this post in response to an ask, because I realized that the way we hold birds during research is not actually conducive to bird snuggling, and I thought I’d elaborate more on that. Do not pick up wild birds unless you are working under a permit or unless the bird is definitely injured, at which point you should bring it immediately to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. If you want to work field jobs that involve handling birds, check out the Ornithology Exchange or contact your local bird observatory to arrange a volunteer internship.