Another session at the Turkey Run “Eagles in Flight” program was a demonstration of bird banding. I knew that birds get banded, but I can’t say as I had ever seen a banded bird other than a large waterfowl, and I certainly never observed the banding process until this program. John Schaust, a certified bird bander and naturalist with Wild Birds Unlimited, gave the demonstration. He captured birds behind the Nature Center at Turkey Run at the feeding stations.
Birds are generally trapped in what is called a mist net. It is very fine and the birds fly against it and tumble down into a pocket where the netter retrieves them, bands them, and then releases them, good as new. I still haven’t seen that in action because John said that because of the extreme cold he didn’t want to trap more than he could quickly get back into the wild, and also while caught in the net they wouldn’t be able to fluff up their feathers which is one way they keep warm in the winter. So instead he used a potter’s trap, much like the “have-a-heart” traps used for chipmunks or squirrels. The bird goes in to get some seeds and the door closes behind him. The bird can move around and fluff up and eat and be comfortable until he is rescued.
Our first capture was a junco. John gently picked him up from the trap and put him in a small bag closed with a drawstring. He brought the bird back into the nature center to take its measurements. He put the bag on a scale, took the weight, subtracted the weight of the bag, and noted the weight of the junco as 22 grams, just under one once. John had an extensive log book to fill out with all sorts of information about the bird besides its weight. He could estimate its age by the condition of the feathers, he pronounced it a male by its coloring (male juncos are darker than females), and he measured its wings, tail feathers, and leg so he could select the appropriate size band—one that wouldn’t be too tight, or fall off, or move to a different location on the leg. Then he took a plastic drinking straw and blew the fine feathers on the junco’s chest so the skin was visible. The skin is so thin that he was able to estimate how much body fat the bird had. The fat shows up as a yellow glob visible through the skin. In the winter a bird may lose over 20% of its body fat overnight and needs to replenish it quickly in the morning or it will freeze. This little junco still had a healthy fat deposit although it was only 9:30 a.m. Finally the band was attached, using some very tiny instruments, and the band number was recorded in the log book. According to John, when first released the bird may peck at his new legwear for a while but soon he ignores it just as we aren’t aware of our watches or rings if we have worn them for a long time. After he released the bird back where he was originally trapped, the junco flew to a tree and sat there for a few minutes before returning to his regular routine of flying and eating. No harm done, and scientific data collected to be later submitted to the Bird Banding Laboratory.
A mourning dove entered the trap next. As John went to get it out, it escaped his grasp and flew off. As John explained, one of the things a bander has to learn is “soft hands.” Birds are very fragile creatures, so if one starts to get away you have to fight the urge to squeeze it and instead let it go.
Becoming a bird bander is a complicated process. There is lots of training involved, testing, and you have to work with several certified bird banders who will certify that you are competent to work on your own. The permits to band are issued by the federal government and there are only 2000 master banding permits in the U.S. and another 2000 sub-permits. Some states require a state permit in addition to the federal permit.
From the banding process valuable knowledge is gained about what birds are in the area, where they migrate, their life-span, and the health of the population. Occasionally banded birds are recaptured and then their data adds more information to the knowledge base.
And if you remember my article on the Moonbird B95, a rufa red knot that migrates from the tip of South America to the Arctic tundra annually, you’ll be pleased to know that he was seen again this past December in South America. Banding works!