Sunday, September 29, 2013

Bird Banding 101

Recently I have been able to begin volunteering for something I've been wanting to do for quite a long time now...bird banding!  Yet another thing awesome about Toronto, they have their own station set up at Tommy Thompson Park.  The station runs 7 days a week and is open to the public to come watch only on the weekends.  It's been pretty slow so far (averaging about 30 birds a day) but boy is it exciting!  You learn so much quicker when things are up close. Like they say "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush!"

During migration, migratory birds make their way either to their breeding or "wintering" non-breeding grounds. Since it is now autumn, they are heading to their non-breeding grounds. For many of the small birds, like hummingbirds, warblers and flycatchers, this means a long track from the boreal forest to South America! Now we have it easy being able to sit on a plane to fly there, maybe experience some turbulence, but these little guys fly there facing everything from hurricanes, buildings, starvation, and exhaustion. The hummingbird, for example, flies 15 hours or more straight to cross the Gulf of Mexico! (Stutchbury, 2011).

Birds ready to be banded
Banding is a way for ornithologists to collect data on birds that would not be able to be collected any other way. While surveys ( like Christmas bird count or breeding bird surveys) are a very important way to collect bird data, many birds go uncounted and aspects of health are not measured. So although it is more intrusive to the bird, it's data is incredibly valuable to determine the state of their populations.

Bird extraction
(photo by: Tim Thorington)

Banding begins before the sunrise, opening nets about half an hour before. The nets look something similar to a badminton net, where birds fly into it, land in a little pocket of net, and we are then able to take them out. Extraction of the birds happens every half hour so that they are not stuck too long, and they are brought back to the station! 

At the station each bird is fitted with a band, based on its size, that has a unique number on it. They are then identified, sexed (is it make or female?), aged to if it's an adult or juvenile, fat is checked (more fat = in a healthier position for migration), and then weighed.   All these numbers help to show how healthy these birds are in their long migration process. Birds that are less fat either just landed from a long flight from, say, Hudson's bay....or it could reflect habitat that doesn't bear enough food. Fat birds are all ready to hit the road again, and also show there is a good amount of food produced by the ecosystem! 
Weighing a warbler
Checking some fat!

It is really awesome to see some of the data that comes out of this research. I've added a photo to this that is a list of birds having been banded at TTP and found elsewhere! 

Birds recovered by TTP

Questions that banding can help answer:
- How old do birds live for in the wild?
- Where do birds migrate from and to?
- Are the habitats they are using healthy?
- Do they use the same routes, or different?
-Where do they migrate from and to?
- Are migration times changing?
- Are any species experiencing population declines?

Although there are some people who worry about the stress placed on birds through banding and handling, there is no other way as efficient and accurate to get the type of information we get from this activity.  With birds being in such danger that they are of extinction, it's important that we do our best to learn as much as we can, study as much as we can, and do what we can to ensure their populations don't reach more of a low. Although there is some stressed placed on birds, the benefits received from the knowledge to better plan and help them is far greater.

So!  Stop by a banding station near you that allows people to watch and see what you can learn!  Tommy Thompson is open on weekends for people to drop by, and many banding stations even sometimes do demonstrations for migratory bird festivals.  Get up close and personal with some of our favourite feathered friends and see just how amazing they are!

To learn more what we find at TTP check out their website or facebook page!

Here are just a few photos of what we've had so far!

Canada Warbler
Wilson's Warbler

Pectoral Sandpiper
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Common Yellow-throat

Wilson's Warbler

Black-throated Blue Warbler