One of the most wonderful things about birds is that they can capture human imaginations in so many ways. There are people who love to sit outside, close their eyes, and simply listen to bird songs, while other folks enjoy nothing more than to put feeders up in their yards and watch cardinals and goldfinches pick at seeds or woodpeckers, chickadees, and nuthatches nibble at suet. Hardcore birders live for the chase of catching that quick glimpse of elusive rare birds (or any new “lifer” species!). Other people could leave or take birds of the live, feathery varieties, but still love avian imagery in clothes, jewelry, and house-wares. Then, there are people who just want to get up close and personal with birds; researchers who are happiest when they’re up before dawn, catching birds, handling them gently, and releasing them back into the wild. Of course, these ways to enjoy birds aren’t mutually exclusive at all! I for one, am definitely guilty of enjoying birds in pretty much every way 🙂
If I had to choose a favorite, however, bird banding would definitely be my automatic answer. Seeing birds in the hand is truly unlike any other experience. It’s an amazing and humbling privilege, and banding birds on a regular basis is definitely the thing I miss most about grad school!
But why catch and band birds in the first place? Obviously, the “fun” aspect is absolutely secondary! Much as they might also enjoy the process, scientists band birds to get answers to questions that can only be answered by measuring and tracking individual birds.
Of course, many questions can be addressed without catching birds; for example:
If you go out and count birds…
–Which species are present (i.e. diversity)?
–How many individuals of each species are present (i.e. abundance)?
–What ecosystem features influence diversity or abundance?
If you go out, find nests, and monitor them…
–How many breeding birds are in an area?
–Where are the nests placed?
–How many of the nests succeed in fledging chicks?
–What influences whether nests succeed or fail?
If you go out and observe behavior…
–How do individuals respond if a predator flies over head?
–How often do individuals look for predators while foraging?
–How often do parents feed their young?
–What are courtship behaviors?
If you go out and record songs…
–Are different song types used in different situations?
–Do all members of a species sing in the same “dialect?”
–How do females respond to male songs?
–Does singing behavior differ in quiet versus noisy environments?
Of course, these are just a few of the many questions that can be investigated without ever catching a single bird! But there are SO MANY other questions that are impossible to address without handling individuals: Do you want to know how long individuals of a species typically live? If males live longer than females? If some individuals have more offspring than others? Where juvenile birds go when they leave the nest? If some individuals are healthier than others? If the individuals that arrive first in the spring are bigger than individuals that arrive later? I could go on and on, but the point is that there are many things that can only be answered by identifying and measuring individuals—that’s where bird banding comes in!
A bit about bands:
A standard bird band is a little aluminum bracelet, sized to fit securely-yet-loosely on a bird’s leg, and printed with a unique number XXXX-XXXXX. Once a bird is banded, the number lets scientists note when it is captured again. One of the most important questions that banding lets scientists answer is how long individuals of a species typically live. But, recognizing individual birds is also important to avoid catching and measuring the same individual over and over! Plastic color bands can also be added to code individuals by location or to make it possible to identify individuals by sight, if each individual is banded with a different combination of colors. Color banding is useful for behavioral studies, as it’s typically not possible to easily distinguish among individuals by plumage traits alone.
Bird banding (called “ringing” in the UK) is HIGHLY regulated. In the USA, all bands must be ordered through the USGS Bird Banding Laboratory. In order to receive bands, a scientist must have a permit (typically several permits, actually—federal and state are always required, and local permits might be needed too, depending on where the banding takes place!), and they must have a research reason—banding never takes place “just for fun.” After banding, the scientist must send a report to the USGS. The most critical pieces of information are the species, location, and date corresponding with every band used, but USGS also wants other information, such as the sex, age, and any measurements for reach bird.
A bit about measurements:
Any question that involves details of birds’ shape, size, plumage or other physical characteristics (e.g. amount of fat) can’t be answered without handing actual birds and taking measurements, samples, or photographs. Typical measurements include:
And that’s just the beginning. Researchers can look for evidence of diseases or parasites, or assess other aspects of health and physiology. If a DNA sample is taken, any number of genetically-based questions can be investigated, relating to evolution, mating systems, hybridization between species, dispersal patterns, etc. If a bird is fitted with one of many types of tracking devices, researchers can learn where individuals go when they migrate, what route they use, and how long it takes them. As with all types of research, human imagination sets the limits to what we can learn.
Bird banding demonstrations can also serve an important educational role and generate enthusiasm that might turn into a commitment to conservation. Kids, in particular, typically get much more excited about seeing birds up close than watching them through a window, or struggling to find them with binoculars. Bird banding demos are the perfect opportunity for them to get to know birds in a way that’s memorable and not frustrating. Yet, even if the primary purpose of bird banding demos is education, the data are always still used and still valuable!