Have you seen or heard of birds that wear jewelry? You might wonder why animals who have such beautiful feathers would need any further adornment. These metal objects--bird bands--are not merely decorative, but serve an important scientific purpose that helps us understand birds, as well as their needs and challenges.
How Bird Banding Works
Biologists and volunteers set up mist nets--nets with very thin webbing that birds usually can’t see--in key locations where birds typically fly, or in the case of waterfowl, traps are set up in water. Once birds are caught in the net, they are removed carefully to minimize harm to birds (and humans--some birds bite!), and weighed with a scale. Birds are examined to determine size, sex, feather condition, breeding status and overall health.
Then they are measured for their band. The bands are provided by the USGS free of charge to licensed banders. There are thirty different size bands, which correspond with different species.
Mourning Dove: Tom Koerner/USFWS
Bands are still placed by hand, maybe not too dissimilar to those from decades past. A caliper helps determine the proper band size, and a good old pair of pliers will help attach it. It is important to use the right size, or the band can cut off circulation. Or, if a bird already has a band, it is noted on the data sheet.
After all that, the birds are released, and the data is recorded in a database, along with the band number. The banding program is one of the largest bird data programs in North America, with an average of 1.2 million banding records and 87,000 encounter records reported to the Bird Banding Lab per year. Bands are recovered by recapture in banding programs, harvested by hunters, or found after death. Banding records help scientists understand bird migration patterns, population status and trends, behavior, and other information. Data is widely used by scientists to make better decisions for management of bird populations, such as setting hunting seasons, or protecting habitat.
Duck banding release. Alisha Hawkins/USFWS
We have learned much about birds through banding over the decades. For example, in 1944, American scientists first learned that chimney swifts wintered in Peru when bird bands were returned to the US embassy there.
More recently, Wisdom, the laysan albatross was recognized to be both the oldest bird in the world and the oldest bird mother, when she hatched chicks earlier this year at Midway Island National Wildlife Refuge through banding data. In fact, the same biologist who originally banded Wisdom in 1956 returned and found his band on her in 2002!
Wisdom, the world's oldest banded, wild bird. Photo credit: Greg Joder
There is a rich repository of banding information on the flyways.us site. In fact, if you have recovered a band, you can see more information about it, such as where and when it was originally banded.
History of Bird Banding
While there is some evidence of people banding birds for hundreds or even thousands of years--John James Audubon tied string around some birds in the early 1800s--an organized system of bird banding has only been around since the early 1900s. A growing movement of scientists began to study the habits of birds, but there was no good system for understanding one of the most important but mysterious aspects of birds’ lives: their migrations. A steep drop in the price of aluminum--which had been worth more than gold--made it possible to stamp identifying marks and return information on tiny pieces of metal which were light enough not to affect birds movements, but durable enough to last for years.
In 1902 Paul Bartsch of the Smithsonian used this new advancement to band around one hundred night herons near Washington, D.C., and the modern banding movement was born. Others were inspired to follow his lead, and by 1909 the growing number of enthusiasts formed the American Bird Banding Association. By 1920, the movement had become an official government program, co-managed by the Canadian Wildlife Service and the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey, which later became the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In 1935, banding data lead one scientist to develop the concept of migratory flyways. By 1946 the first large-scale waterfowl banding program was under way, leading to the establishment of the four administrative Flyways in 1948.
The program is still going strong today, and is now managed by the U.S Geological Survey’s Bird Banding Lab.
Early methods of capture. Photo/USGS
Banding Together for Birds
Today, there are many participants in banding program. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists band waterfowl every year as part of the Western Canada Cooperative Waterfowl Banding Program (WCCWBP), a long-term, large- scale pre-season waterfowl banding program. The program is a joint effort between the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS), state and provincial wildlife management agencies, the Flyway Councils, First Nations, and non- governmental waterfowl advocacy and research organizations.
Service staff also work with local organizations, state agencies and others to band songbirds and others as part of the the Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship (MAPS) Program, which provides important data about key species in the United States and Canada. Other organizations and universities also do banding work for their own research, as long as they have a banding permit and research proposal approved by the U.S. Geological Survey and a permit to trap birds from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Master banders usually undergo years of training to ensure that the birds are captured properly to minimize harm.
The North American Banding Council has a list of accredited banding organizations. Often, students and others start out as volunteer assistants, and this can be a great introduction to the study of birds, and possibly even the start of a career as a scientist.
Hermit Thrush and volunteer at a bird banding session. Lisa Hupp/USFWS
Find a Banded Bird? You Can Help
You should also report any bands you encounter to the Bird Banding Lab. You can do that online at www.reportband.gov, or call 1-800-327-BAND. You’ll need the band number, or numbers. If you are lucky, you might even find a reward band. You’ll also need to know where, when and how you recovered the bird, and for your contact information, in case there are any questions. The USGS Patuxent Bird Banding Lab will send you a certificate of appreciation that includes information about the sex, age and species of the bird, and where and when it was banded. You can keep the band too.
Next time you are out looking at birds, keep an eye out for the glint of a small piece of metal on a bird’s leg. If you are lucky, you just might see a work of science in progress.
This year marks the Centennial of the First Migratory Treaty, which was the first international agreement in American history to protect migratory birds wherever they live, breed and rest. In honor of that occasion, and one hundred years of“banding together for birds,” we are sharing this blog on actual bird banding. Learn more at www.fws.gov/birds/MBTreaty100/ or #birdyear.
-- Christopher Deets, Migratory Bird Program