What the Heck is Bird Banding?

Have you heard me mention volunteering at the banding station and wondered what the heck that is? Well I’m putting on my bird nerd persona and happily sharing it with you. Picture a huge grin on my face as you read on cause I can’t stop smiling when I talk about my days spent with the birds.

© Nancy Murty •  Seed Breaker  • oil on linen • 9x12 in • available

© Nancy Murty • Seed Breaker • oil on linen • 9x12 in • available

For eight weeks in the spring and ten weeks in the fall, one day a week I drag myself out of bed one and a half hours before sunrise. The bad thing about spring is the time to get out of bed comes earlier and earlier every week. In the fall, the alarm clock rings later and later as the days grow shorter and shorter, so every week I get to stay in bed for five or ten more minutes.

It should be noted right here; I am not a morning person and I don’t like getting up. Therefore, volunteering with the birds must be pretty darn special for me to drag myself out of a perfectly warm bed, cuddled up with the cat every week.

Bird bags hanging by the banding table. The birds are very calm in the bags.

Bird bags hanging by the banding table. The birds are very calm in the bags.

The schedule each day revolves around what time sunrise is. I arrive at the station a half hour before sunrise and 15 minutes before sunrise we head out to open 30 mist nets. These nets are made of very fine threads that are hard to see and contain a series of horizontal pockets called trammels. Every 30 minutes the nets are checked, birds collected, placed in draw string bags, and marked with a numbered clothespin indicating the net number. At the station, the bags are hung from hooks located in the areas where the banders stand. This is my job currently, lots of walking, often in the mud, but I love it.

Left photo    - Banding table with bands and tools all set for the day.    Right photo    - Bander with a bird, taking the band off the string.

Left photo - Banding table with bands and tools all set for the day. Right photo - Bander with a bird, taking the band off the string.

The bander gently removes the bird from the bag, reads the band number to the scribe and put the band on the bird’s right leg. Next the bander measures the wing chord, tarsus (lower leg bone), and amount of fat the bird has formed. During migration the birds store the energy needed to fly long distances in the form of fat located in the wishbone area and along their sides. One important aspect of the research is to identify stop over areas where the birds can forage and replenish their fat stores for the next leg of their migration.

Left photo    - Bander measuring the tarsus.    Right photo    - Bander looking at the wing feathers for molt limits to age the bird.

Left photo - Bander measuring the tarsus. Right photo - Bander looking at the wing feathers for molt limits to age the bird.

Next the banders identify the sex (male or female) and try to determine the age of the bird by looking at the feathers for molt pattern, coloration and/or condition. In certain species, eye color can help tell if it is a younger or mature bird. In the fall the banders will look at the top of the skull checking for complete closure of the bone. The banders finish by weighing the bird and then release it.

The scribe’s notebook and bird code cheat sheet.

The scribe’s notebook and bird code cheat sheet.

During the banding process, all the information is recorded by the scribe. I started volunteering as a scribe and learned so much about birds sitting across from the bander. The biggest thing to get use to was the four-letter code system used to identify species, a Black Capped Chickadee = BCCH. Cardinal = NOCA (Northern Cardinal).

I really look forward to my days at the station (run by the Braddock Bay Bird Observatory) and it is so invaluable to my artwork. Watch for a future post on why that is.

Have a great day.
Nancy