Saturday, March 11, 2023

Bird Banding Gives Us Incredible Insights into Avian Life - and Our Planet

Bird Banding Gives Us Incredible Insights into Avian Life - and Our Planet

By Peter McKenzie-Brown; 

Published in the Globe and Mail, March 21, 2023

If you live in southern Canada, from the Atlantic provinces to the Rockies, you have likely seen a ruby-throated hummingbird. Beautiful but solitary, they breed in the North. 

In autumn, they migrate south. Most end their journeys when they reach the Gulf of Mexico, but some fly across the Gulf of Mexico to the Yucatan Peninsula – 800 kilometres flown with three-gram bodies. Though Canada-born, they make instinctive beelines to their winter homes. Summer and winter, many return to the same gardens year after year. We know because bands on their tiny legs enable us to track their passage. Those bands have become vital tools for ornithology.


Dramatic reductions in the populations of bird species – the result of predation, farming and forestry practices – are the backstory to our efforts. In the Calgary area, for example, bird loss led to the formation of a registered society that sponsors the banding of mountain bluebirds and tree swallows. During the summer breeding season, my friend Bill Taylor and I pull up to a nest box and obstruct its opening with a rag. He bands the nestlings if they are old enough, then continues to the next box. 

If house sparrows have built a nest in one of the boxes, we unceremoniously remove it. That species is invasive, unlike house wrens, which are protected. 

In autumn, we trap northern saw-whet owls at night with nylon or mesh mist nets, record their biometrics, band and release. All three species are small enough to hold in one hand. 

Using purpose-made tools, Bill clips a band with a unique number on a captured bird’s leg. He later reports the date, place, species and number for this bird. During its lifetime, the chances are good the bird will be recaptured and reported to birding authorities. In this way, avian science can reconstruct its movements. 

For the record, some bird markers are readable from a distance – neck collars for geese and swans, for instance, and wing markers for vultures, eagles, swans and herons. 

Banding works because of the international machine in which each bander is a minuscule cog. If anyone recaptures a banded bird, or finds a band on a dead bird’s leg, that band tells how to report date and place – information to help ornithology better understand migration patterns and changes in behaviour over well-defined periods. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) staffers manage more than 77 million archived banding records, receiving some 1.2 million banding records and 100,000 encounter reports annually. 

Now a worldwide phenomenon, the practice got a boost in 1918 when the U.S. and Canadian governments signed the Migratory Bird Treaty; two years later it became federal law. 

To become a bander, you must have a government-issued permit; most of those with banding permits are ornithologists, biologists and wildlife technicians; the others are birders and environmentalists who just want to help. 

With the help of planet Earth’s armies of banders, ornithologists long ago established that migratory birds need intact habitats to survive. Banding contributed to an Audubon Society report that says two-thirds of North American bird species are at risk of extinction.

Banders record the location, date, species, gender, estimated age and other information about the birds they band, and submit their data to the appropriate regulator. USGS works with the North American Banding Council to develop banding materials and address safety issues. 

Banding enables science to better understand avian migration patterns and habitat, thereby identifying priority areas for conservation. Changes in the age of birds caught may indicate longer or shorter life expectancy. The number of annual captures may indicate whether populations are increasing or in decline. Weight and wingspan data can show health trends. Sampling wild birds for Lyme disease and avian influenza can help determine these diseases’ prevalence, and which human and animal communities may be at risk. Toxicologists can assess a species’ exposure to contaminants and other environmental threats. 

Banding is by no means new. In 2020, a USGS article celebrated banding’s first century in North America, noting that birds contribute more than beauty to our planet. Many plants need birds to pollinate. Hawks and owls target rodents and other pests. Fruit- and grain-eating birds help spread the seeds of the plants they consume. 

The Canadian bird-banding program in Ottawa issues permits to capture and band within Canada. Co-operatively run by Canada’s banding office and the American Bird Banding Laboratory, this program relies on the public to report sightings or recoveries of bird bands and other avian markers.


Because banders contribute greatly to our environment, there’s always room for more. Like humankind everywhere, banders are curious about the world around us. We study everything on this planet – from its molten core through to the biosphere and the reaches of space. We are, after all, a curious species. 



Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Book Review: The King's Speech

The King’s Speech: How One Man Saved the British Monarchy by Mark Logue and Peter Conradi; published in 2010, Penguin Group; 242 pages; 13 pages of notes and index. One of the authors, Mark Logue, is the grandson of Lionel Logue, the therapist who is one of the two main characters in the book; the other main character is the man who became a duke, and then King Edward VIII.

The co-author of the book, Peter Conradi, is a well-known professional writer and editor. From a piece I found online, it seems clear to me that Logue did the research and wrote the first draft – the book makes it clear that he was obsessed with the story, which quotes endless details from Lionel Logue’s archives – letters, diary entries, and much other minutiae, plus royal proclamations, and revisions that his grandfather made to documents. Conradi did the polishing. In the online interview I mentioned, he talked about spending three months or so on this work, which is based upon endless detail about Logue’s grandfather and the king.

I found this book absolutely riveting, and had trouble putting it down. The gist of the story is that Lionel Logue – an almost unknown, and self-taught, speech therapist – saved the British Royal Family in the first decades of the 20th century. He wasn’t an aristocrat or even an Englishman: he was a commoner, and an Australian to boot. Nevertheless, it was the outgoing, amiable Logue who single-handedly turned the nervous, tongue-tied Duke of York into one of Britain’s greatest kings after his brother, Edward VII, abdicated in 1936 over his love of twice-divorced Mrs. Simpson.

(An aside: My father was a British mariner during the Great Depression and WWII, and captain of a ship that brought supplies to the UK from America. He once told me that Edward had given up being the Lord Admiral of the Royal Navy to become third mate on an American tramp. It seemed funny, at the time.)

This book focuses on the remarkable relationship between Logue and the future King George VI. Researched and drafted by Logue’s grandson and drawing extensively from his grandfather Lionel’s diaries and archives, it brilliantly throws light on the intimacy of the two men, and the vital role the King’s wife – Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother – played in bringing them together to save her husband’s reputation and reign.

The book provides astonishing insights into a private world. Logue’s diaries also reveal, for the first time, the torment the future King suffered at the hands of his father George V because of his stammer – and mentions, in passing, that he was born left-handed. As was common in Britain’s upper crust in those days, this was seen as a defect, so his parents and servants insisted that he behave as if he were right-handed. This, the book suggests, likely contributed to his now-famous stutter.

The King’s Speech provides a wonderful portrait of the British monarchy from Great Depression through WWII and the defeat of Naziism to the deaths of these two men only months apart. The late Queen Elizabeth II also plays cameo roles, from the time she was a child.

Finally, there is the matter of the film we all adore, The King's Speech. Set in the 1930s, this 2010 British historical drama appeared the same year the book came out. That said, it only covers a small portion of the story. I recommend you watch the film after reading the book, or vice versa – or, as I did, both.

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