The RoVing Naturalist
By Dennis Prichard
No doubt you have heard of bird banding – that activity biologists do to determine where birds go, how fast they get there and how long they live. It takes a lot of training and patience to be able to band birds, and there are relatively few people who take on this tiny task that means so much.
I had the unique opportunity to watch as Ann Adams of Albuquerque, New Mexico, put tiny bands on hummingbirds at one of the premier wildlife refuges in the country, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Right beside the visitor center, Ann and her assistant set up the catch net system that would keep a steady stream of hummers coming to the table for their new jewelry. It is a drop-down net over a feeder that can be remotely triggered when the right bird enters to feed. The goal here is no injury to the birds as they want to band and release them to the wild.
Once caught, Ann goes to work methodically handling the bird with care but with purpose as she notes several measurements and observations. But first, the band is already opened and special pliers wait to close it around the tiny leg. She makes sure it fits perfectly and can be rotated freely so as not to interfere with the bird’s daily behavior. The band is made of aluminum, very thin to keep down weight, and most importantly, etched with a unique number just for that bird. This number identifies this bird as being caught at the refuge, on this date. The age and gender are recorded, as are measurements of the bill, wing and tail lengths, weight(!), and even a look at the fat on the breast. This tells if the bird is still migrating (fat reserves present), or staying at the refuge for breeding (a lean breast with all muscle.)
The record-keeping is all-important as this is sent to a central database where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stores all the info. If scientists want to know the longevity of a hummingbird’s life, they can query the database and find that, on average, hummers live about 12 years in the wild, and nearly 20 in captivity.
They can also learn that specific hummers return to the same place year after year for breeding. They know that the little powerhouses can make the trip across the Gulf of Mexico in one continuous flight during migration! Bands tell a lot about birds, so trained banders like Ann must be spot-on with their records.
The birds get a chance to refuel before being released, and they readily drink sugar water which Ann provides by sticking their bills in the feeder. After this, Ann asks for a volunteer to release the bird. An open palm is all it takes. Ann sets the bird on the outstretched hand, and most of the time the bird just sits there panting. Pretty soon, though, it takes off in a shot to join its feathered friends at the feeders and flowers. If encountered again, the band number can be sent to the Bird Banding Laboratory. A certificate will be sent to the finder and another to the bander telling the particulars of the find, like date first banded and the encountered date, who banded it, and if it was released back into the wild.
Banding requires an apprenticeship with a Master Bander for some time before becoming proficient enough to earn the federal permit required to handle the birds and attach bracelets to their legs. This is a task that requires dedication, patience and great care for the birds. People who do this are truly dedicated to the task, and really seem to enjoy informing visitors about the importance of the birds, the banding program, and all the wonders nature has to offer.
Dennis Prichard is a retired park ranger. He’s worked and studied wildlife at many National Parks and Wildlife Refuges including Carlsbad Caverns, Mammoth Caves, the Everglades, Sequoyah NWR in Oklahoma, Sevilleta NWR in New Mexico, and Isle Royale National Park, to name a few. He travels in a fifth wheel with his wife and dog, a Labrador named Cricket.
Read previous RoVing Naturalist articles here.