Do you have any idea how often someone can track your whereabouts? Banks, credit card issuers, phone companies, internet providers, and probably the NSA, the FBI, Target security hackers, and investigators hired by divorce lawyers, have the capability of knowing or finding out exactly when and where people are located with remarkable precision. But when it comes to birds it takes special effort to document their specific individual comings and goings.
We may know with some certainty when one particular bird comes to a feeder because of a unique feather, or color or feature which distinguishes that bird from all the others like it. But the following year that feature may have changed with the bird’s molt, and we may not be able to recognize it again. Certainly, unlike a human with a Smartphone in purse or pocket, we are not able to track and learn about birds, other than by sight, without some help. Hence, bird banding.
While there is some history of bird banding in Europe back to 1595, John James Audubon is credited with the first banding in North America, when he tied silver cords around the legs of fledgling Phoebes at Millgrove, and had two of them return the following year. Banding has progressed from silver threads to readable wing tags, (see Great Egret, left) leg flags,(stlucieaudubon.org/docs/hartBeat/hb2012/hb120705flag.html), neck markers, (see Trumpeter Swan, below) and radio transmitters with satellite tracking.
But by far the most common method of banding birds is the placing of readable bands on their legs, so that individual birds can be identified one from another. Nan LaFramboise, a licensed bander working under the auspices of the U. S. Geological Survey, is currently banding Painted Buntings in St Lucie County and other locations in Florida. Painted Bunting numbers are in serious decline and there is a concerted effort to understand more about them to prevent their population plummeting to a critical level. Nancy is working with the University of North Carolina and the Painted Bunting Observer team to contribute to this effort. www.paintedbuntings.org/. For more on Nan’s work at her banding station at Possum Long in Stuart, Florida, see brdbander.blogspot.com/ and www.tcpalm.com/news/2013/feb/28/volunteers-band-birds-at-possum-long-nature-in/.
Typically, the bird’s regular feeder is replaced with a trap into which the birds go to feed, from which they are unable to escape (photo 1 below). Upon removal from the trap by gentle hands, the birds are placed in a cloth bag to calm them (photo 2), then removed and banded with four bands in a sequence unique to that bird (photo 3), checked for fat deposits (photo 4), evaluated for flight feather molt and condition (photo 5), wing measured to help determine the age of the bird and add to the gathered data of the species (photo 6), weighed, and then released (photo 7). The entire process is completed gently and quickly, and birds are set free within minutes of their capture.
We discovered that very shortly after their release the birds were right back in the traps, probably to feed again, rather than because they enjoyed the banding process. When the team discovered that they were catching more already banded birds than unbanded, they shut down the process, although there were clearly more unbanded birds in the area.
Everything that takes place is duly recorded (photo 8) and subsequently sent to the Bird Banding Laboratory, which is now curiously under the umbrella of the U. S. Geological Service, at Patuxent, Maryland, where the information is entered into a national database available to the world. If one finds or sees a banded bird, that discovery should be reported at www.pwrc.usgs.gov/bbl/ . It is important to note and report the sighting of the bands in the following sequence for Painted Buntings (as shown in photo 3): top left, black and white split, indicating the bird was banded in Florida; bottom left, blue; top right, red; and finally, bottom right, here, the silver Federal band which carries a nine digit number unique to that specific bird. Remember, the sequence and perhaps the colors change with every banded bird.
While keeping track of the whereabouts of we humans may be more sophisticated, the information gained from the banding of birds is invaluable. We probably never will be able to persuade birds to carry beepers or smartphones so we can track them, so bands are the next best thing. There were times when we would have loved to be able to know where our children were, especially during their teen years, but unlike some paroled prisoners, we never did stoop to affixing satellite monitors to their legs. (I hope this suggestion doesn’t put ideas into the heads of some parent readers.) Then again, many of us do indeed wear bands like birds, but on the third finger of the left hand. However, like birds, that band requires sighting to record whereabouts as well. Good thing, too, for some.
For more information on bird banding see: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_American_Bird_Banding_Program; and www.zoosociety.org/conservation/bwb-asf/library/birdbanding.php. (I have a 2014 photo of a Whooping Crane with bands and a radio transmitter on its leg from T.M. Goodwin WMA in Fellsmere, to illustrate that type of banding. But the photo, while sufficient for the International Crane Foundation to identify the bird as one of the Florida-Wisconsin migratory flock and not the Florida permanent resident flock, is not of sufficient quality for my display purposes.) (3/2/14)