Bird Banding

(This column appeared in the June 2, 1997 Buffalo News.)

In 1899 Danish schoolteacher Hans Mortensen placed aluminum bands on the legs of a few local starlings and storks to assist him in his study of their life histories. Little could he imagine the world-wide popularity of the activity he initiated.

Just three years later Paul Bartsch began banding night herons in the District of Columbia and what the British call "ringing birds" soon spread across this country. By 1919 this new type of bird study was so well established that the United States Bureau of Biological Survey, today the Fish and Wildlife Service, assumed responsibility for supplying bands and maintaining records. (A famous blooper occurred before the agency's name was changed: an entire supply of bands was produced with the return address "Biol. Surv., Wash., D.C." misrepresented as "Wash, Boil, Surv.")

Bird banding today is an avocation that straddles the boundary between hobby and science. Banders enjoy the thrill of holding delicate birds in their hands -- suffering those pesky chickadee pecks as a test of their mettle --, they are rewarded by hearing of foreign recaptures of "their" birds and they learn a great deal about the birds they band. But at the same time they contribute important information about bird ecology, distribution, migration, longevity, population changes, diseases, and life histories.

Last week I visited Elizabeth Brooks' banding station at the Braddock Bay Bird Observatory outside Rochester, one of the premier sites in North America. Birds are banded there from dawn to dusk -- nets checked at half hour intervals -- from late April to early June and from mid-September to mid-October.

I accompanied Betsy on a round of the nets. Although I have observed this activity many times and was even a licensed bander years ago, I remain fascinated by it. What interesting birds would we find quietly waiting to be removed from the tangle of their soft hammocks?

And many nets did hold interesting birds. We found in succession a Canada warbler (only the second I had seen this year), a swamp sparrow, a magnolia warbler, a hummingbird whose gorget changed in the bright sunlight from black to bright scarlet, a yellowthroat, a grackle and a catbird. Betsy carefully extracted each bird from its mesh spider web and gently placed all but the hummingbird in carrying bags. She is not licensed to band hummingbirds so she released it. The feisty bird -- no bigger than her little finger -- buzzed up to a nearby shrub from which it peered back as if to say, "And you thought you had me. Ha."

Back at headquarters, Betsy and her assistants recorded for later computer compilation the birds' weights -- the warblers' less than 9 grams, about that of a single pat of butter -- and several other body measurements before carefully bending an aluminum identification ring around a leg of each bird.

As he has during most of the 13 years Betsy has operated this station, Bob McKinney of Rochester bands here as well. Regional Audubon Society members know Bob from his well-attended banding demonstrations at the annual Allegany Nature Pilgrimages. Three hard-working interns help this year as well: David Bonter, Karen Koehler and Martha Zettel.

Despite the tens of thousands of birds Betsy has banded -- well over 2000 at the Braddock Bay station this year alone -- she retains her infectious enthusiasm for her voluntary activity. She proudly told me that she had banded two new species this year: Kentucky warbler and rough-winged swallow.

Federal legislators have recently sought to curtail the "misguided efforts of amateur scientists." Surely those critics are unaware of the scientific contributions of "amateurs" like Elizabeth Brooks.