Fundamental to avian science,
it helps protect our planet.
By Peter McKenzie-Brown
I’ve been a birder for most of my adult life, and it’s a splendid hobby. One of its great pleasures is that it lures us into the natural world, where we train our binoculars and ears on species of extraordinary beauty and often splendid song. Besides birding as a hobby, in recent years, I have added the practice of bird banding assistant to my birding activities. My friend Bill Taylor is the certified bander, and on trips into rural Alberta I am often his helper. We are among many volunteers who help band beautiful Mountain Bluebirds (photo, right) and Tree Swallows at nest-boxes in the Alberta foothills.
The backstory to our banding activity is the dramatic reductions in the populations of numerous bird species because of changes in predation, farming, and forestry practices. In Alberta, bird-loss led to the development of “Bluebird Trails” – volunteer-built nesting boxes placed at intervals along highways and byways to provide safe breeding sites for the Bluebirds. Opportunistic Tree Swallows, which winter mostly in Mexico, also acquired a liking for these boxes. Through regular visits during breeding season, we keep records of nesting successes and band the nestlings, keeping detailed biometric info for the chicks. When we capture adults, we band them, too.
Our efforts are a miniscule part of a global effort to better understand our avian friends. We attach bands on the baby birds’ legs when they are old enough or on an adult if we capture it in the nest. If banded birds are ever recaptured, or if someone finds a band on their legs after they die, the ornithological community gains a better understanding of their migration patterns and changes in their behaviour over a well-defined period.
Banding is a logical continuation of birdwatching. It reflects the simple reality that people need nature to be happy – and little in nature is lovelier than birds and birdsong in the wild. For the nations of the Americas, they are a shared resource. Banding practices around the world help our avian friends, but only because of the vast international machine in which each bander is a tiny cog.
Banding requires armies of volunteers – the heartbeat of “citizen science.” In Canada, 27 primary sites – the Canadian Migration Monitoring Network - track birds during spring and fall migration, using both observation and banding techniques. Many licensed banders and other volunteers show up before dawn during migration, capturing specimens in fine-meshed “mist nets” set up for the occasion. An example is Ontario’s Long Point Observatory on Lake Erie, which began banding during migration in 1960. Seventeen years later, volunteers banded their millionth bird. These long-term, continual records are vital to understanding changes in population and species movement in our rapidly changing world.
We maintain the boxes so we can keep records of nesting successes and failures. Licensed banders like Bill clip a band on one leg of captured adults and mature nestlings. Our efforts are a miniscule part of a global effort to better understand our avian friends. We attach bands on the legs of the young just before they are about to leave the nest-box. We also band adults we capture in the nest. When we recapture banded birds, our reports to ornithological authority help avian science gain a better understanding of the migration patterns, ages, and changes in species behaviour over a well-defined period. The bands themselves neither harm nor hamper the birds.
With the help the banding armies, ornithologists long ago established that migratory birds need intact habitats to survive. A few years ago, the Audubon Society (named after a renowned 19th century ornithologist) published Survival by Degrees, a report showing that 64 per cent (389) of North American species risk extinction from climate change. The good news was that immediate action could improve the chances for three quarters of those species.
How does banding protect birds?
Every time someone bands a bird, the bander records the location, date, species, gender, estimated age, and other features, and sends that information to the lab. To ensure the birds’ well-being, capture and banding are done by trained volunteers and researchers. The USGS works with The North American Banding Council, which develops banding materials and addresses safety regulations.
People who see or catch a banded bird report that information back to the lab, which keeps records of all reported encounters. Laboratory staffers manage more than 77 million archived banding records and more than 5 million bird encounter reports, with an average of nearly 1.2 million banding records and 100,000 encounter reports submitted each year.
Through banding research, scientists can learn a bird’s routine, such as where they spend most of the day, where they migrate, what they eat and how much habitat they need to feed and reproduce. This information can help identify priority areas for conservation.
Banding data can reveal other trends in life span and population. If there is a change in the age of birds caught at a certain location, life expectancy may be getting shorter or longer. The number of birds captured may indicate whether populations are increasing or in decline. Data such as weight and wingspan can show health trends. Such insight can cue scientists to look for changes to birds’ food sources, predators, competitors, habitats, and other factors that affect their survival and reproduction. Sampling wild birds for Lyme Disease and Avian Influenza can help determine these diseases’ prevalence. Bird migration routes can identify which human and animal communities are at risk of exposure too. And toxicologists can determine the results of avian exposure to contaminants and other environmental threats.
Banding is by no means a recent practice. Two years ago, the US Geological Survey wrote a celebratory article about banding’s first century in North America. Birders are among the multitudes who know that most birds bring joy merely by their presence – from their bold colours and majestic songs to their grace as they glide flap or glide through the sky. But they contribute more than beauty. Many plants depend on hummingbirds and other species to pollinate them. Hawks and owls target rodents and other pests. Fruit- and grain-eating birds help spread the seeds of the plants they consume.
Some bird researchers add additional markers to identify individuals in the field without the need to recapture them. Some colour and alphanumeric code combinations can be read from a distance with binoculars or spotting scopes. Different types of markers are used depending on the type of bird, its behaviour and the information needed. Bands weigh only a small fraction of a bird’s weight so as not to impede movement and researchers must follow strict protocols that have been tested and revised over the years to reduce any potential harm or hindrance to the birds.
A small metal band with a unique number is placed on a bird’s leg so that when its band is reported its movements can be reconstructed. Birds may carry other markers. These include neck collars, used to mark geese and swans, which are readable from a distance with binoculars or a spotting scope. Wing markers on vultures, eagles, swans, ravens, crows, or herons are often visible while the birds are in flight or perched. Leg flags on shorebirds stick out from the upper leg with a code which can be read from a distance. These bands can indicate, for instance, that the birds wearing them belong to a specific location or banding project.
As a scientific technique, banding requires expertise and skill usually gained over many years of study and field experience. To participate in banding activities, you must apply for a Scientific Permit to Capture and Band Migratory Birds. Generally, people with banding permits are professional ornithologists, biologists, wildlife technicians. Many are retirees who just want to help.
A Canadian Bird Banding Office (BBO) in Ottawa issues permits to capture and band within Canada. Banders from other countries who want to band here must first receive a permit.
Jointly administered by Canada's BBO and America’s Bird Banding Laboratory, this program relies on the public to report their observations or recoveries of bird bands and other bird markers. This data helps scientists and researchers understand, monitor and conserve migratory birds. We also track and publish longevity records for each North American bird species.
Birds are also good indicators of environmental health because they are sensitive to habitat change. Changes in bird populations can indicate environmental stressors, such as impacts from extreme weather or human development, which could affect other parts of the ecosystem. For these reasons and others, researchers conduct avian conservation science.
Because the U.S. and Canada coordinate their banding work through the North American Bird Banding program, which links the Canadian Wildlife Service Bird Banding Office with America’s labs. These organizations cooperate closely – especially on species that migrate within and through North America. However, birds are banded across the world, and both Canada and the US collaborate with other countries. Over the course of a normal year, 914 species of wild bird occur naturally north of the US/Mexican border. Of these, 426 species reside in Canada.
How to sum up? For me and certainly most other birders, one of the great pleasures of birding is that birds lure us out of our homes into the natural world. Helping to band is an enhancement to that marvelous experience.