According to history, ancient European naturalists were baffled by the disappearance of millions of European birds each winter. Many species that were numerous in the summer months departed in the autumn, only to reemerge in the spring. Others arose in the winter only to vanish in the summer. Theories made to explain this yearly occurrence included that birds hibernated for the winter, vanished beneath the sea, or even changed into barnacles! Some suspected that birds moved places with the seasons, but the breadth of their trips and winter destinations were unknown.
Some early observers proposed tagging a bird in order to track its travels and determine its location. Herons banded in southern England were discovered in mainland Europe in the mid-nineteenth century. Later studies in the nineteenth century revealed the travels of numerous bird species, but the discoveries simply led to more baffling problems. Native Americans in North America saw birds and migratory phenomena, but there are few written records of their observations.
Bird banding on the American continent most likely started in the early nineteenth century, when John James Audubon attached silver threads to the legs of Eastern Phoebes and discovered that these birds returned year after year to nest in the same area where they were born.
There were still unanswered questions. In the winter, where do these birds go? How far do they go? Which paths do they take? Do they pause on their travels to rest? What habitats do they prefer if they stop? How quickly do they go? How do they get around? How does a young bird that has never flown the trip to its wintering grounds know where to go? What inner desire leads a little bird to go on a risky voyage to a location it has never seen or heard of? How can birds predict weather changes in order to take advantage of favourable winds? Can birds accurately forecast the weather? How is all of this encoded into the DNA molecules? What illnesses and parasites do birds contract? How do illnesses spread?
Even with the multitude of ornithologists researching birds today, many of these issues remain unanswered for most species. Unraveling the secrets of the winged animals that inhabit our world is one of the core fascinations of bird studies today, and it is ultimately an essential endeavour if we are to build successful conservation and protection programmes for birds and their ecosystems. Banding is one of the most essential strategies available to biologists for learning about the lives of birds.
Some people are against bird banding because they believe it raises the danger of damage or death to birds. When more than a billion songbirds are killed in North America each year by pet cats, window strikes, tower kills, road kills, habitat destruction by developers, improper pesticide use, removal of unwanted swallow and swift colonies, and other human activities, the risk posed to birds by trained researchers pales in comparison.
Every year, millions of birds are taken, measured, banded with an individual and individually numbered metal band, and released unhurt. The great majority of these birds never return. The handful that are (perhaps fewer than 1% of those banded) reveal a lot about their strange existence. A Gray Catbird banded in North America may be retrieved by someone in South America, providing valuable information on its winter habitat, time of trip, health, weight fluctuations, and other factors.
Each year, an Arctic Tern migrates from the northern hemisphere to the shores of Antarctica and back, perhaps seeing more daylight than any other species on the world. According to banding studies, they may make this journey more than twenty years in a row, returning to the same nest place each time.
The timing of a bird’s moult (the yearly replacement of its covering of feathers) may be detected by attentively inspecting its hand. Birds renew part or all of their feathers every year. Mature feathers are not living tissue and degrade quickly. If a bird replaced all of its flight feathers at once, it would be unable to fly until the moult was over. This happens in various geese and swan species.
Most species, on the other hand, replace their flying feathers one at a time. On each wing, the same feather is usually replaced symmetrically. As a result, the bird retains its ability to fly and may continue to collect food, migrate, and escape danger.
A banded bird may not be seen again for several years. The band put on a Minnesota blackbird in 1972 was discovered in 1994 in the regularly observed nest of a Peregrine Falcon, indicating that blackbirds in the wild may survive for up to 22 years and explaining why this particular blackbird was sent to its everlasting reward.
The endangered Kirtland’s Warbler only nests in a tiny area of Michigan and spends the winter in the Bahamas. It may be seen returning to its Michigan breeding grounds year after year, indicating its long-term loyalty, or philopatry, to its birthplace. A Louisiana Waterthrush will return to the same mating region year after year.
When a bird is banded, we can identify it, examine its plumage changes over the mating season, and evaluate its survival and productivity. Scientists may identify population trends and acquire insights into habitat changes and other elements that influence population trends by collecting data across huge geographical regions over extended periods of time. Such information provides a good foundation for developing conservation strategy for each species.
Some birds have coloured bands with unique codes. The particular bird may therefore be recognised in the field without needing to be recaptured. If you observe a color-banded bird, take special note of the band color(s) and combinations, as well as the leg on which they occur. Then notify the Bird Banding Lab of your sighting.
Banded birds may sometimes add to the mystery of migration. Occasionally, a bird arrives far beyond its normal range, maybe on the other side of a continent or even across an ocean from where that species is anticipated to exist. Is the bird dead? Was it blown off course and just misplaced? Did it track a ship? Is there a deeper mystery here? Is a certain number of juvenile birds designed to migrate to new locations, possibly as pioneers attempting to occupy new habitat areas? Do these birds ultimately return to their typical wintering or summering habitats, or do they perish?
Although modern technology such as satellite and radio monitoring of species provides precise insights into the movements of individual birds, banding remains the most valuable and cost-effective approach for resolving many issues, particularly for smaller species.
Other aspects of bird banding captivate people. One benefit that may have nothing to do with research is the opportunity to interact closely with these fascinating animals. Birds have time and space freedom that people do not, and it is an unforgettable sensation to securely hold this tiny creature for a few seconds, wonder where it has been, and what experiences it will witness. Will it spend the winter flying over the trackless southern waters or in the canopy of a Latin American rainforest? What is going on in that small brain that is causing this creature to go on such a perilous journey?
Public banding activities allow children to get up up and personal with birds. I never get tired of seeing children’s happiness and enthusiasm when they first hold a wild bird. Usually, their parents are close following. They may not say much, but they are definitely enjoying their son or daughter’s happiness. These are fantastic chances to share our enthusiasm with these species while also providing insights into the significance of habitat protection so that birds may continue to be a colourful and audible part of our environment. And maybe, just maybe, a spark may be sparked, leading one of these kids to become the next Roger Tory Peterson.
A band on a bird is analogous to a note in a bottle. Where will it return once released? A banded female House Wren was recently caught in a live chipmunk trap situated just north of Indianapolis. The number was entered into the Bird Banding Lab, and the computer informed us that this female had been banded as a nestling three years before in Columbus, Ohio. This was its third mating season, and it produced eight baby House Wrens before heading south.
Banding birds requires a great deal of devotion and hard effort. There are numerous pleasures, but few compare to the joy of finding that a banded bird has been found. A band recovery yields so much information that it is well worth the effort.
What should you do if you come across a banded bird? Keep a record of the find’s details, including the species, date, time, cause of death (if applicable), and any other relevant information. Then dial 1/800-327-BAND to contact the Bird Banding Lab. You will contribute significantly to our understanding of birds, get a lovely certificate from the BBL, and maybe a message of thanks from the bander detailing the specifics of that particular bird.
Do you want to help with a bird banding study? Offer your assistance to a bander near you. Your services as a volunteer would be much appreciated. If you are an enthusiastic birder, remember yourself to look for metal or colourful bands on the bird. Your observations, particularly of colourful bands, will give critical information.
Dr. Weiss is Executive Director of the Chipper Woods Bird Observatory in Indianapolis, Indiana (http://wbu.com/chipperwoods/).