Birds on Board

This black-throated green warbler rode-on the author’s hood on a ride back to shore on a foggy day. Photo by author

I’ve heard when a bird lands on a boat it’s really a visit from a dead relative, reincarnated as a wren, robin or some other kind of bird. This came to mind on a recent fishing trip when, for the first time this year, I had a bird pay a visit to my boat. “Cousin Steve, is that you?”

I hope it was, or maybe my Grandma Lois or even my mother-in-law. Both were avid fisher-ladies. My brother was with fishing with me. I hope it wasn’t his mother-in-law. We both thought she was a witch!

Anyone who fishes the Great Lakes very often has probably shared a boat with an avian visitor on occasion – especially at this time of year. Most often it’s not water oriented birds; it’s feathered friends more at home in woodlands or prairies. This time of year is especially bad because of the spring bird migration from South to North.

Morning fishers are more apt to get birds on board than midday or afternoon anglers. Many migratory birds travel by night, supposedly using celestial navigation to guide them on their way and find themselves far out over Lake Michigan, Superior or the other lakes by the dawn’s early light with no place to alight other than your boat or mine.

On foggy days, the birds can come anytime. Spring-warmed air oozing out over cold Great Lakes waters often produces a thick fog with only a few hundred yards of visibility. A land-based bird can easily flit it’s way into the mist and become disoriented.

Some birds, when migrating, are capable of flying amazing distances. Some kinds of birds fly hundreds or even thousands of miles non-stop on their spring and fall flights. Others, however, fly only a few miles, then rest, then continue – over and again. It’s these species, like warblers, which most often end up stopping by my boat. I’ve had other species: nuthatches, redpolls, redwings and field sparrows. I almost had a grackle, one time. It was a sunny morning, I was heading offshore and we were three miles or so out on the lake. One of my passengers said, “Hey, it looks like Uncle Ernie is trying to catch the boat!” No, actually, he said, “Look at that crazy bird trying to catch up with us.”

I glanced back and as he said, a grackle was flying about 15 yards off the stern, obviously following the boat. I continued ahead at a good speed, but kept looking back, thinking the bird would peal off but after another half mile or so, it was still there.

I suspect grackles are stronger fliers than warblers, but still, no need to have Uncle Ernie follow us any farther offshore so I slowed to a stop, the bird caught up, made one pass over the boat and evidently spotted the distant shoreline. Back towards shore he went, probably wondering, “What was I thinking?”

More commonly, especially with the warblers, the bird will often fly around the boat a couple of laps, coming closer and trying to find a convenient spot, often on the stainless steel bow rails. They can’t grip the rails with their feet so usually they flit about until they find a location where they can settle down to rest their wings.

Almost instantly, it seems, the bird will fall asleep and I advise whomever is with me to just let it rest. After all, were it not for finding us, either far offshore or in the fog, it would soon have crashed into the lake for its final rest. In about 20 minutes the bird nap is over and the little fellow awakes with a new attitude.

It seems to think, “If these fishermen haven’t eaten me yet, I guess they are friendly. Then it get’s friendly, often sitting on extended fingers, accepting crumbs of sandwich crusts or just hopping around the boat gobbling up lake flies or other bugs.

That usually lasts until a fish bites and we spring into action catching the fish, netting and all the rest. When we are done, the bird is gone. Hopefully, rested, fed and able to make its way back to land.

One however, stayed the whole trip, flitting about, seemingly having as much fun as the fishermen on the boat. At the end of the trip, it was still foggy and as we motored towards the harbor, it took a position on my shoulder like a parrot on a pirate captain. It rode there the whole way until we busted through the fog and could see land.

“Goodbye, Grandma Lois! Nice to have you on board today,” I thought as it flew on its way.

Mike Schoonveld
Mike Schoonveld grew up hunting and fishing in rural Northwest Indiana. In 1986 he piggy-backed a career as an outdoor writer onto his already long tenure as a wildlife biologist with the Indiana DNR. Now retired from his DNR position, Schoonveld is a U.S. Coast Guard licensed boat captain, operates Brother Nature Charters on Lake Michigan and spends much of his time trailering his boat to fishing hotspots around Indiana and the Midwest. Mike can be reached through his website or visit Mike's Outdoor World Blog at


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