Have you ever seen a television program referencing the migratory patterns of birds and wondered how scientists are able to pinpoint the thousands of miles traveled by a seemingly untraceable animal?
The answer, in many respects, is through bird banding. By tagging and tracking birds across the world, scientists and amateur bird lovers are able to gain a better understanding of where birds have been.
Wild birds are harmlessly caught in nearly-invisible “mist nets” suspended between two poles, much in the same manner as a seine fishing net. After the captured birds are removed, a tiny metal band is fastened to each individual, issued from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and marked with a unique number. This number allows for individual birds to be identified should they be caught again or found dead elsewhere.
Upon determining the bird’s age and sex, in addition to taking measurements such as weight and wing length, the bird is released unharmed. Data from banding projects continues to help researchers understand population and community dynamics, individual lifespan, and the intricacies of molting feathers.
Apart from temporary banding projects associated with universities and individual research projects, there are many full-time research stations that regularly band birds, season after season.
One such location, Connecticut Audubon’s Birdcraft Museum and Sanctuary in Fairfield, Conn., operates a banding station several days a week during the spring and fall migration seasons. Over the course of several decades, the researchers at this location have continually collected data on the property’s migrant and resident birds.
This six-acre patch of woods, sandwiched between Interstate 95 and the Metro-North train tracks, attracts an incredible diversity of species. On a spring morning it's possible to see several species of thrush bouncing down the well-maintained trails, while warblers and orioles sing from the tops of towering oaks.
Many of these species find their way into the mist nets scattered across the property, affording an up-close view of these fleeting species when they are extracted for data collection.
While such banding is generally not open to the general public, it nonetheless plays an important role in conserving the birds we all love.
William Haffey is currently a seminarian for the Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn. and has a background in avian ecology. He has birded extensively in the United States and Latin America.
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