A Bird in the Hand

Hey friends!

It occurred to me after putting up my first post that to some, bird banding might be a novel thing – after all, it isn’t one of the most well-known forms of research. To birders, perhaps, but to many (and even to myself until just a handful of years ago) it’s a totally new idea. Which is why I thought I’d take a minute to answer what might be some initial questions about the concept.

So just what IS bird banding, anyway? Bird banding involves the safe capture of wild birds in nylon nets called “mist nets,” and recording valuable information about each bird, including the species, sex, age, wing length, amount of stored fat, and weight. These are all things that help us answer questions about avian populations. A small metal band issued by the U.S Geological Survey with a unique, identifying number is placed on each bird’s leg. This means that each bird will have an identity – almost like we have social security numbers (but birds have it way easier – they never have to deal with the Social Security Administration), allowing researchers to record information about the same bird more than once if, and when, it is recaptured, either where it was first caught, or thousands of miles away, and possibly for years to come.

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A newly-banded Lincoln’s Sparrow
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Measuring the tarsus length of a banded Gray Catbird

Why should we band birds? Bird banding helps us monitor populations, determine their longevity, understand how land use and management might be influencing their survival and productivity, and make more informed decisions on how best to manage and conserve the land they need to live and thrive. Perhaps some of the most valuable things we can learn from banding birds – or at least, the most relevant in terms of the earth’s current environmental issues – are how climate change, and habitat loss and degradation are influencing wildlife populations in general. By banding birds, we can take note of when they arrive and depart during spring and fall migration; when they breed and how successful their breeding is for a given season; during what stage of life their populations are most susceptible; and changes in their relative abundance in an area over time. We can compare from year-to-year whether species are migrating earlier or later, breeding earlier or later, and whether a species is facing decline (or, in some cases, increasing). All of these things can help us know the state of the earth’s environs as a whole, because birds serve as strong indicators of how environmental factors might be (and likely are) influencing all forms of wildlife.

And so, I think it’s safe to say that a bird in the hand really is worth two in the bush.

Happy birding!

Margaret

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