USFWS program explores the science of bird banding
To feel the tiny heartbeat in the palm of your hand, knowing that yours might be the only human hand to ever intersect with its life in flight, that is the wonder experienced by someone who bands birds.
Early on the overcast morning of Saturday, May 19 volunteers from Friends of the St. Croix Wetlands Management District joined U.S. Fish & Wildlife staff and volunteers from the St. Croix Valley Carpenter Nature Center in Hastings, Minn., in setting up a bird banding program.
By 8 a.m., more than 20 cars had delivered birding enthusiasts of all sizes, shapes and experience to an intersection of meadow and forest deep in the heart of the Oak Ridge Waterfowl Production Area just north of Star Prairie. They were about to learn about the science of ethical bird banding.
USFWS Wildlife Biologist Chris Trosen welcomed shared the history of Oak Ridge and updates on some of the USFWS ongoing projects including the efforts to bolster populations of two headline pollinators, the Monarch and Karner blue butterflies. The Monarch effort has been underway for several years focused on habitat restoration and the planting of milkweed, while the Karner blue effort is starting its third year and includes mass planting of lupine on a number of WPA's in the district including Oak Ridge.
Longtime volunteer banders Shelley Bowman and Marilyn Kinsey teamed up to demonstrate the process of banding using a Rose-breasted Grosbeak captured a short time before in the nets strung up along the face of the forest.
Bowman said every band has a unique number and come in a variety of sizes to fit various species. She added that they are personally responsible for every band issued to them. The pliers used to attach the band is specially made to crimp the band perfectly without injuring the bird's legs.
Bowman held the Grosbeak firmly with one hand using the bird bander's grip while she attached the band. Her narrative was suddenly interrupted when the bird pinched her finger with its sharp bill designed to crack seeds. Turns out, Grosbeaks are notorious for their ability to pinch and hold on.
"This is a male. Because he's got no more brown plumage, we call him an ASY, After Second Year. They come back second year and they are part brown, part black. Now he's nice and black all over, a ASY. We don't know if he's third, fourth, fifth year, he could be any of those," said Bowman.
She measured his wing and blew into his belly feathers to reveal that he's ready for breeding.
While Bowman was inspecting and measuring the Grosbeak, Kinsey was busily recording all the data connected to that particular bird and its band. Banders are required to record a lot of information and keep meticulous records which will eventually end up in the database maintained by the Bird Banding Laboratory (BBL) at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland.
"The band will stay on the bird's leg for the rest of its life. If that bird is found dead with its band on, you can get ahold of the Banding Lab by phone or online and they will send you the information that will tell you where the bird was banded and by whom and if it was aged and sexed at that time. If a band is turned in, they notify the bander. They notify us," said Bowman.
If it weren't for the slender metal poles and occasional flap in the sunlight, the very fine walls of black nylon netting known as mist nets would be nearly invisible to the eye. The nets contain "shelves" which create pockets when a bird becomes ensnared. Banders count on that invisibility and the position of the nets to snare wary passerines. A typical net runs about 8 feet high and 20 feet long.
It is imperative that banders monitor their nets to make sure they get to snared birds as quickly as possible. According to volunteer Linda Whyte, the less time the bird has to struggle and thereby increase its tangle in the netting, the less time it will take her to free the bird thereby keeping its stress level lower.
"We always have the option, if the bird gets too stressed while we're trying to free it, we can just let it go. We don't need to put it though the whole banding process and stress it further. We don't want to cut the net, but if we have to, we will," explained Whyte.
As Whyte untangles a Catbird from the netting, she describes what she's trying to do.
"They struggle a little less if you hold them in the bird bander's hold," said Whyte.
First she carefully unwraps the bird's wings, then its head and finally its feet. As she works to free the bird, she speaks in a low comforting tone while she watches for signs of undo stress, eyes closing, beak staying open, and panicked singing. Every bird has its limit. Hot conditions can also add to a bird's stress.
"When you pull the net over their heads, you support the beak as much as possible. You don't want to stress their necks. My big challenge is getting him to let go of this. For ethical banders, it's always about bird safety first," said Whyte.
According to volunteer Jared Prom, species like Blackbirds and Chickadees, birds that cling to trees and cattails, tend to become more tangled in the nets than birds like Goldfinches that naturally perch more than cling.
"I can still feel where that last pair of Grosbeaks that we brought up, that male, did a really good job on my hands. Grosbeaks are tough because they're big and have the bigger beaks, but if all birds were equal size, I'd be more afraid of the Chickadees. They bite as much as any bird," said Prom.
As the group of birders gathered at the bottom of the hill watching from a distance as Prom worked to free another Catbird from the net, volunteer Jennifer Vieth pulled out her smart phone and dialed up her Sibley eGuide to Birds App. A member of the group gave a shout out to the Merlin Bird ID program as well. During the ensuing discussion, participants were educated on the value of such apps in the field but also warned against using the apps too much as they can have a negative effect by actually tiring birds out and causing them to focus solely on the calls forgetting about essential activities like eating and drinking.
The value of citizen science is that it teaches us about ourselves, about what's at stake right now and how our daily decisions can impact even the tiniest of our feathered friends.