Be a Bird Scientist
Learn how you can help bird researchers with bird banding data.
By Ken Keffer
It's early on a crisp autumn day. As I walk through the woods, I can't help but feel like an excited little kid waiting to open my birthday presents.
This part of my job never gets old: checking the bird nets around the Black Swamp Bird Observatory in Ohio. I'm the education director here, and part of my job is to capture and band thousands of birds each year.
Have you ever been watching the birds at your feeder when something bright and shiny caught your eye? Banding is one of the oldest techniques used to gather data about birds. It's amazing what wonders a little weightless leg band can do to help researchers gather data.
Here's how banding works. First, songbirds are captured using something called a fine mist net, which I like to think of as a cross between a volleyball net and a hairnet. Birds fly into it and are temporarily restrained in a safe hammock.
Trained researchers and volunteers delicately remove the birds from the nets and take them to the nearby banding station for processing. Here the birds are identified by species and then banded, aged, sexed, weighed, measured and assessed for body condition. Finally, they are released, unharmed, back into the wild sporting shiny new bracelets with identification numbers on them.
I find bird banding exciting because there are always surprises.
During last year's spring migration, I remember showing a recaptured white-crowned sparrow to a group of young students, who found it hard to believe that I'd caught that same bird just five days earlier. In that short time, it grew from 29 grams to 34 grams, an impressive increase in weight. It was a real-life lesson in how important stopover habitats are to birds needing to fuel up and continue their migration.
The bands used for songbirds are tiny.
The United States Geological Survey administers bird banding. In addition to the standard band, researchers sometimes place colored bands, collars or tags on a bird's leg, neck or wing. These markers are especially helpful in behavioral studies, or when individuals need to be identified in the field.
It's now possible to place GPS loggers on some bird species. These new tools are helping researchers decipher all kinds of data, including the often tricky logistics of migration. Researchers at the Center for Conservation Biology recently documented one ambitious whimbrel's 3,200-mile trek from the Delmarva Peninsula of the mid-Atlantic coast to the Mackenzie River in far northwest Canada-all in just 146 hours.
Bird bands are small and can be nearly impossible to read unless the bird is in the hand. As a result, many reported bird band encounters come only after the birds have met unfortunate ends, often involving a window or an outdoor cat. Researchers do recapture a small percentage of the birds they band, but they also rely a lot on citizen scientists to report banded birds they find.
But reporting bands that you discover is only the beginning. Bird-watching is one of the country's largest and fastest-growing hobbies, which means there's a vast potential for collecting data. Cornell Lab of Ornithology administers many citizen science programs, which offer a good way to get involved and help researchers. Best of all, you don't have to leave your own yard.
Project FeederWatch, for example, examines feeder use from November to April. A similar program, focusing on nesting birds of the backyard, is Project NestWatch, which asks participants to document the success of bird nests. It's a good hands-on project, with protocols to ensure minimal disturbance of nests.
A common yellowthroat, right after its been banded.
The eBird project is the most flexible citizen science option. After creating an online account, you simply enter your bird sightings, including species, number of birds, location and time observed.
The longest-running project of this kind is the Christmas Bird Count, administered by the National Audubon Society and Bird Studies Canada. Begun in 1900 as an alternative to the traditional Christmas morning bird hunt, it's an ideal group activity. Look for one in your area, or start your own.
Keeping track of birds is a full-time job for many and a lifelong hobby for others. Together, researchers and devoted amateurs share an enthusiasm for nature's winged wonders.
Consider a bit of research your duty as a backyard birdwatcher. Look for a volunteer opportunity near you, or sign up for a citizen science activity. The rewards of helping with these conservation efforts rival the excitement of seeing the year's first hummingbird scouting out the feeder.
Watch a video of Ken banding a bird during fall migration on our blog.
3 Ways to Get Involved in Banding
- Attend a Banding Demo. Look for bird banding demonstrations in your area. It will help you learn what to look for and how these programs are run.
- Help with Banding. You have to have a permit to actually band birds, but you can still help in other ways. Check with your local refuge or birding organization on how to get involved.
- Report Results. Researchers gain valuable data from every single bird banded, and they depend on birders like you to help. You can report band numbers online at reportband.gov or by calling 1-800-327-BAND.