What the Heck is Bird Banding?

Have you ever heard me mention volunteering at the bird banding station and wondered what it is all about? Well, I’m happy to share my bird nerd persona with you. As you read on, you can picture a huge smile on my face because I can’t stop smiling when I talk about my time spent at the station with the birds. 

The simple answer to the question “Why band birds?” is that by placing a band on a bird, it gets a unique numeric code that distinguishes it from all other birds. In other words, it now has an individual identity.

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Let me illustrate why it is important for birds to have an identity. Imagine you see a male cardinal frequently visiting your bird feeder. Is it just one bird that visits, or is it four? By giving each male cardinal an identity, we can tell that there are actually six different birds that visit the feeder. This is a simple example, but it demonstrates why it is important in scientific research to differentiate between birds.

My Experience at the Station

For eight weeks in the spring and ten weeks in the fall, I wake up one day a week one and a half hours before sunrise. The worst part about spring is that the time to wake up keeps getting earlier every week. Conversely, in the fall, the alarm clock goes off later and later as the days get shorter and shorter, so I get to stay in bed for an extra five or ten minutes each week.

It’s worth noting that I’m not a morning person and don’t enjoy waking up early. Therefore, volunteering with the birds must be incredibly special for me to leave my warm bed, where I’m cuddled up with my cat an hour and a half before sunrise every week.

Birds are in the bags waiting to be banded, the birds are very calm inside the bags.

The daily schedule is determined by the time of sunrise. I reach the station 30 minutes prior to sunrise, and 15 minutes before sunrise, we begin opening the 32 mist nets. These nets are made of thin threads and have horizontal pockets called trammels. Every 30 minutes, we walk a specific route to check the nets and collect any birds. Each bird is placed inside a drawstring bag and marked with a numbered clothespin indicating the net they were found in. Back at the station, we hang the bags from hooks next to where the Banders work. 

My current responsibility at the station is Net Picking, which requires a lot of walking, often in muddy conditions, but I enjoy it very much.

The bander’s table with strings of different size bands, and measurement tools.
Bander removing a band from the string. The bander’s fingers are resting on the bird’s shoulders.

The station cooperates with several research projects at a time, collecting additional species-specific data and measurements. One important aspect of bird research has been to identify areas where birds can stop over to forage and replenish their fat reserves during their migration journey. 

The Bander carefully removes the bird from the bag, selects the correct band size, reads the number to the scribe, and attaches the band to the bird’s right leg. 

Measuring the tarsus of an American Goldfinch.
Looking at the feathers to age a Northern Flicker.

The Bander measures the tarsus (lower leg), wing chord, and the amount of fat the bird has stored. During migration, birds store the energy they need to fly long distances in the form of fat, which is located in the wishbone area and along their sides.

The next step is for the Bander to determine the sex and age of the bird. The Bander does this by examining the feathers for molt pattern, coloration, and/or condition. In some species, the eye color can be used to differentiate between a young or mature bird.

During the fall, the bander inspects the top of the bird’s skull to determine if it’s a young bird by checking if the skull is completely closed, similar to how infants are examined. Afterward, the bander weighs the bird before releasing it back into the wild. The entire process typically takes only a few minutes to complete.

The scribe’s notebook and bird species code sheet. The gray Nerf dart acts as a bird pacifier for biters.

During the Banding process, the Scribe records all the information. Volunteers start by working as Scribes. Sitting across from the bander taught me a lot about birds. The four-letter code system used to identify species was the biggest thing I had to get used to. For instance, a Black-Capped Chickadee is identified as BCCH, while a Cardinal is known as NOCA (Northern Cardinal).

I always look forward to volunteering at the Braddock Bay Bird Observatory. Being outdoors, spending time with the birds, getting exercise – I love it all!


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  1. Fascinating, Nancy – thanks for the pics, it made things so much clearer for me as to what you do!

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