Musings of a roaming nature nerd

Put a band on it!


I absolutely love bird banding. Handling and studying birds up close is a thrill and a privilege that truly makes my heart sing. It is said that having “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Although this old saying does not directly relate to banding, its origin goes back to medieval falconry, when having a bird (one’s falconry bird) in the hand was a valuable hunting tool. And falconry was actually one of the origins of banding! To me, a bird in the hand is worth spending freezing mornings shaking ice from mist nets and running in place to stay warm; worth wading through gigantic reference books of molt limit information; worth being bitten and poked and pooped on by seriously irritated little birds. Its worth it for the tremendous amount of data that can be gleaned from just a few short minutes with a bird in hand.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet, just barely showing his ruby crown.


Aside from the obvious “cool factor” of being able to take any wild animal into your own hands, banding of course does hold great scientific value. Placing a numbered (or sometimes colored) band around a bird’s leg identifies it if captured or found in the future. When compared with data from a previous capture a bird’s life span, health, molt patterns and other morphological characteristics can often be determined. This type of data builds greater knowledge of individuals, species and populations within a variety of the world’s ecosystems. Location, date, weight, wing chord, age and sex are recorded as basic data. Slightly more advanced techniques look at other factors such as feather molt limits- is a bird transitioning between plumages, thereby indicating a particular year of its life? Or accumulation of fat in the keel- is this bird building up a fat store for migration or is it a lean local resident.

Bird banding itself is both a new and old form of tracking birds. Since roughly the early 1900s banding has been a highly regarded and frequently used tool in the ornithological community for collecting morphological and migration data for thousands of species. However, as early as the 1500s the very first data was collected about the movement of birds based on banding. One of the privately owned, and therefore banded, Peregrine Falcons belonging to the King of France took flight and disappeared in 1595. Because of the presence of a leg band this same bird was able to be identified when it showed up 24 hours later in Malta, over a thousand miles away! This moment stands as one of the first times humans began to grasp the speed of which flight and migration could take place.

At the Rio Mesa Field Station, 30 miles east from Moab, Utah, sits the banding station at which Jason and I are currently volunteers. Mist nets (fine mesh nets which birds can’t see) are opened 15 minutes before sunrise and checked for birds every 30-45 minutes for 6 hours, 7 days a week. In our time here the net runs have been slow. The big migration push has passed and most of the birds we capture will be spending the winter in the area. In the past few days, we’ve been capturing few new birds at all and are mostly seeing the same banded population again and again. Although locally recaptured birds may not provide immediate revelations on an individual or species, the data is still valuable in understanding local populations. Just today, we captured a Sharp-shinned Hawk, which promptly drew blood by footing me with its talons! Although we had not banded this Sharpie before, we had all expected that it was just a matter of time before this local resident was caught up in the nets. Sharpies are bird-hunting birds and occasionally get entangled in mist nets when they see easy prey and swoop in. This one was alone in the net, so it must have just been passing through rather than hunting. Seeing such a beautiful, wild, and fierce bird so close is always a thrill!


The banding station


Sharp-shinned Hawk


On the left, Amber and Jason do some figurin' about the age of this Sharpie. On the right, the Sharpie has its band in place and is ready for release.


A favorite recaptured bird of mine was actually netted back in New York state at my former Sanctuary’s winter feeder banding station. A Red-bellied Woodpecker appeared in our nets one day with a band already on its leg. When our lead bander submitted the band’s number to the USGS Bird Banding Laboratory in Maryland a response came back that this Red-bellied has been banded in our area 8 years prior! For a bird with an expected lifespan of less than 12 years, this was truly a remarkable find in the tiny patch of forest at the Sanctuary. While watching the feeders each morning in New York, we had also gotten the impression that two pairs of Downy Woodpeckers visited regularly. The two males and two females predictably showing up together. As it turned out, after we started banding, there were well over a dozen which cycled in and out all day long.

On a day to day basis, we may not be revealing great undiscovered information about a species, but what we do collect builds a knowledge base of local populations and habitat, and adds to the greater ecological picture. At a banding station a bird in the hand is worth everything!


Song Sparrow


Checking for fat in the keel of a Dark-eyed Junco, by gently blowing apart the feathers


Weighing a Dark-eyed Junco


White-crowned Sparrow


Sage Sparrow- an unexpected late season find!


Bushtit- officially the cutest bird of the season


2 Responses

  1. Momchester

    Loved reading all this info about banding … makes me want to do it, too! By the way, just a small “Cliff Claven” note – the ‘king’ of England in 1595 was actually a queen – Elizabeth I, who ruled until 1603. She, like most nobility, was an avid falconer.

    November 4, 2011 at 5:47 am

    • annie

      You are so right! I actually should have written “King of France.” It was Henry IV who lost his falcon… I’ll make the correction right now. Thanks for reading Mom :)

      November 4, 2011 at 11:46 am