Circles of Life
Photos and story by George Harrison, Contributing Editor
Never underestimate the power of a tiny metal ring. Bird banding has been around for more than 100 years, helping researchers gain amazing insight into the behavior and survival of the feathered friends around us. These small circles can give us valuable information about a bird, including its life span, migration pattern, social structure, reproductive success and population growth.
It's all in the Numbers
When reader Judy Sharer of Milton, Ontario found a bird band in her backyard, she had no idea what to do with it.
"I would like to notify someone or get more information about its history, but who should I contact?" she wrote.
Judy is looking for the Bird Banding Laboratory, part of the U.S. Geological Survey. The group is located at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, and is jointly administered by the United States and Canada. There, trained and licensed experts place aluminum rings on the legs of nestling birds and adults.
They measure and examine the birds, then band them with a specific number and release them. Later, if the band is recovered, the information helps reveal the bird's age and the distance it has traveled.
Dr. Paul Bartsch of the Smithsonian Institution initiated the North American scientific bird-banding program in 1902. Since then, more than 57 million birds have been banded. And though only 1 percent of those bands have been recovered, the information the project provides is priceless.
For example, we know that the Arctic tern has the longest migration flight of any living species, making an annual round trip of 25,000 miles. In part, this bird's route has been determined by band recovery along its path.
Northern pintail ducks banded in Saskatchewan also gave researchers information about their range. Some of the hatchling ducks banded in the nest were recovered 2 to 7 years later in Russia, Mexico and Cuba.
We wouldn't know the extent of a wild bird's lifespan if it weren't for banding. Though the average life of a common backyard bird is only 5 or 6 years, we know they can live much longer. A hummingbird has lived as long as 12 years; an American robin lived for 13 years, 11 months; a black-capped chickadee lived for 12 years, 5 months; and an American goldfinch lived for 10 years.
A Helping Hand
If you find a band, there should be a nine-digit number on it, as well as a mailing address for the Bird Banding Laboratory (simply, F&W Service, Washington D.C, USA).
The organization will want to know the numbers on the band, the date you found it, the exact location where you recovered it and the circumstances surrounding the discovery.
You can also share the information by phone by calling 1-800/327-2263, or send an E-mail to email@example.com. If you include your name and contact information, the U.S. Geological Survey will report back to you with the species of bird, and when and where it was banded.
The knowledge gained from the first 100 years of banding in North America has led to remarkable accomplishments in ornithology and the conservation of birds. Few, if any, other tools have been as productive. Who knows what extraordinary discoveries the program will reveal in the next 100 years?