Birds in Hand
Volunteers band together to gain insight into bird life.
By Michael Faw
The nearly invisible mist net looked like an oversized spider’s web. It was stretched along the forest edge, strategically placed to catch songbirds flying through the area—and it was working!
A tiny bird’s nasal-sounding iiink came from deep within the folds of the net. The bird was so small that I had overlooked it, but its voice cried out for attention. I carefully unfolded the net and had my first glimpse of a red-breasted nuthatch—a species that I had been seeking for my birding life list. I worked to remove the nuthatch from the tangle, being ever so careful not to break or damage its fragile legs and tiny feathers. Soon the fussing bird was free of the net and securely enclosed in my hand. I marveled at its soft reddish-orange breast, small size, bluish feathers, and sparkling eyes. A prominent black streak—an identifying characteristic—ran under the lower edge of its supercilium, or eyebrow. I slipped the nuthatch into a small, soft cotton sack, attached a note with some capture details, and carried it into the Lowry Nature Center at Carver Park Reserve in Victoria.
There the sack was clipped onto a long cord that held nearly a dozen similar sacks—each containing another netted or trapped bird. The birds were waiting in line to be banded and then freed. Their captivity at the banding station would only last a few minutes, but it would provide valuable insight into the avian world, as part of the center’s ongoing bird banding and research.
My interest in wild birds led me to volunteer at the bird banding station three years ago. Since then, I have frequently joined other avid birders who help run the station. Volunteers’ duties range from stretching nets and setting traps at dawn, to recording a captured bird’s vital statistics later in the morning.
About 16,000 birds have been banded since the Lowry Nature Center project began in 1969. Up to 40 birds are normally captured during the monthly bird banding event, held the third Saturday of each month except in December. The action begins at sunup and ends around noon. Volunteers string and monitor the nets, or bait and set the live traps. (They receive training and work during several sessions to learn how to handle birds.)
After a bird is removed from a net or wire cage, a trained handler measures the length of specific feathers, checks for body fat, and attempts to determine the bird’s gender and age. This information is recorded in a logbook. Then the bird receives a tiny, numbered metal bracelet. The bracelet, or leg band, which the bird will likely wear for the remainder of its life, does not interfere with its flight, feeding, or roosting. Bands weigh so little that most birds seem to pay no attention to them.
Measuring and banding take only a few minutes. Then the birds are offered water and released back into the wild. The banding data are sent to the U.S. Geological Survey’s Bird Banding Laboratory at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md., where staff compile and store them.
At the station, I discovered that a black-capped chickadee recently captured at Lowry had been banded here seven years earlier. Another chickadee holds the record of being captured five times in one day. Both are proof that trapping and banding are normally harmless. In fact, many of the birds at the numerous bird feeders around Lowry and other Three Rivers Park District nature centers are wearing leg bands.
Black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, downy woodpeckers, and American goldfinches are the most commonly trapped species. But each month can yield a surprise, such as the red-breasted nuthatch. Northern cardinals and migratory warblers, buntings, and other species have also turned up.
Each capture provides an opportunity to learn more about birds’ lives, habits, and deaths. Lowry is researching bird longevity in the western Twin Cities metro region, as well as other details about wild birds. "We might be able to establish a new longevity record for a species with this project," says Kathy Heidel, a naturalist at the center and the coordinator of the bird banding project. "We’re also checking the fidelity of eastern bluebirds and tree swallows to their nesting sites each season. Another phase of the study focuses on nuthatches and the colors of their crowns. We are trying to determine if the birds’ darkening crown colors are the result of natural change throughout the species because of evolution or some other variable."
The Lowry project is one of more than 140 federally permitted banding projects underway in Minnesota. Across the nation, more than 2,000 master banding permits and 2,000 sub-permits are being used to conduct similar research in almost every state.
Bird banding requires a federal permit from the Bird Banding Laboratory in Maryland. Many states also require a permit. To obtain a permit, you need a research proposal and must be able to show that you can safely trap, handle, and band birds. Most banders learn by being an apprentice to an active bander or by taking a banding course. All applicants must be at least 18 years old and able to identify common bird species in their different seasonal plumages.
In 1999, the period with the most recent data available, there were 30,276 birds trapped and banded in Minnesota and an additional 1,341 bands encountered. More than 1.2 million birds are captured and banded each year across the United States. About three-fourths of them are nongame birds, and the remainder are waterfowl.
"Bird banding is a very important tool for studying and understanding birds, avian behavior, and other avian processes," says Kathy Klimkiewicz, a Patuxent wildlife biologist. Bird banding helps track where birds go, where they stop for food during migration, and where they settle. Research from previous projects around the nation confirmed poisoning by commonly used pesticides, such as DDT. Banding has helped locate the wintering grounds for some bird species. Current banding projects are tracking diseases such as West Nile virus, which has spread rapidly westward from New York.
Klimkiewicz says, "banding does have its limitations. It’s just one of many tools used to study birds." Not every band is recovered. Many banded birds simply disappear.
All around Minnesota, researchers are banding various bird species—from goshawks in the north to peregrine falcons and merlins in the Twin Cities metro area. St. Cloud State University students are banding cormorants and white pelicans as part of their own research project.
DNR biologists band hundreds of waterfowl each year. "This department has waterfowl specialists who are working on various bird banding projects each year," said Carrol Henderson, Department of Natural Resources nongame wildlife supervisor. "They band species to help provide data that improve our management of those birds." The public cannot participate in these projects because of erratic timing of banding and safety concerns.
But there are several places, like Lowry Nature Center, where volunteers can either watch close-up or actually participate.
My experiences at Lowry Nature Center’s bird banding station have provided far more insight than I ever expected into the world of wild birds. I’ve learned about bird body fat and leg band sizes and met birders who share my enthusiasm about observing and identifying wild birds. Every time I step outside, open my hand, and see the sparkle of a shiny new leg band rise in the sky, I see a glimmer of hope for the future of wild birds.
If you discover a banded bird, report the details to the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, 800-327-BAND. A report will earn you a certificate of appreciation. The information needed: how the bird was found (for example, whether injured or dead), where found, when found, the band number, and the finder’s name and address.
Michael Faw, a free-lance writer from Chaska, began observing birds and built his first birdhouse more than 30 years ago. A member of the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union, he has been birding in all 50 states and several foreign countries.