The sun is starting to color the eastern sky, although it won’t appear over the horizon for almost another hour. Flocks of songbirds that have been flying all night finally give in to the overwhelming need for food and rest before resuming their northward migration.
While most sensible people are still in bed, a team of dedicated volunteers is already hard at work. They’re bird banders. Capturing, measuring, tagging and releasing wild birds provides researchers with unique opportunities for study.
At this point, the banders are struggling to set up a mist net. Similar in height and construction to a volleyball net, but much more delicate, this net is designed to safely capture birds in mid-flight. The fine mesh is almost invisible in the shadows. The birds fly right into it, and their feathers, claws and beaks become entangled.
A folding table is quickly erected a short distance from the net. One volunteer neatly arranges notebooks, pens, and other tools. Another struggles to unpack a huge tome that discusses the finer points of bird identification, sub-species recognition, feather aging, and additional bird-banding esoterica. The Master Bander, an expert licensed by the federal government, gathers everyone together to go over the morning’s proceedings one more time. More experienced helpers will handle the birds. Beginners will record data. The safety of the birds is a primary concern..
It doesn’t take long for the first bird, a Yellow Warbler, to become ensnared. Sensing struggle will only make things worse, it waits, panting with anxiety. One of the volunteers picks up a soft fabric pouch about a foot wide and long and hurries to the net. Working quickly but with utmost care, she deftly rescues the tangled bird. Next, she gently tucks it into the opaque bag she is holding, pulls the drawstring closed and ties it in an easy-to-open slipknot. The darkness and small enclosed space combine to calm the agitated warbler, and it settles down. The pouch is hung on a handy branch near the table.
A few moments later, a Scrub Jay becomes captive number two. Larger and more aggressive, the jay broadcasts its displeasure to the world with ear-piercing screeches and wildly flapping wings.
Soon a number of bags are lined up, ready for processing. The birds are quiet. Only an occasional twitch reveals that the contents are alive.
While some volunteers continue to collect captured birds, others begin the painstaking task of studying each subject. In turn, the birds will be identified, examined and measured, and then fitted with the small aluminum leg band that will uniquely mark that individual.
Finally comes the moment the bird has doubtless been hoping for. It is taken a few steps away and gently released into the air, free once more to continue its journey north. None the worse for its ordeal, the bird flies away, stopping to perch in a nearby tree for a moment to preen a few feathers and catch its breath.
In addition to tracking seasonal movements, researchers employ banding to learn more about how birds behave, both individually and when interacting with one another. Banding data are also used to answer questions: Which species are flourishing? Which require additional protection, perhaps even listing as threatened or endangered? Waterfowl banding provides critical data on population numbers, average life-span and mortality rates, which is used for setting each year’s hunting quotas.
Because banding required a person to capture and handle a live wild bird, it is regulated by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Licensing is managed by the Department of the Interior. Some states have additional license requirements. There are only about 2000 federally licensed Master Banders in the United States. Most start as an apprentice, with a sub-permit under a master bander, and spend many years perfecting their skills.
What should you do if you discover a wild bird wearing a metal band?
Scientists rely on the general public to provide the feedback essential to all banding studies. You can help their research by reporting your find. Jointly operated by the US Department of the Interior and Canadian Wildlife Service, the Bird Banding Laboratory is the repository for all banding data in North America. You can submit your report online or call their special banding hotline: 1-800-327-BAND from anywhere in Canada, the United States, and most parts of the Caribbean. Please be ready with the band number, as well as how, where, and when the bird was found.
While wild birds aren’t anxious to sport an ankle bracelet, the brief disruption that capture and banding imposes on these individuals is more than offset by the valuable information gained by researchers and decision makers. These birds are playing an important role in the conservation of their species.