A bird bander extracts a Black-capped Chickadee from a mist net at Powdermill.
What is a bird band?
Bird bands are small aluminum rings that are engraved with a series of numbers that identifies individual birds. The bands come in different sizes from a tiny hummingbird band to a “size 9” that fits an eagle. A band fits a bird’s leg like a bracelet: it can spin around the bird’s leg but not slip over ankle or foot joints.
Bird band. Photo credit: John Fraser
How do we band birds?
There are different ways to catch birds but at Powdermill, we primarily use mist nets or potter traps. Mist nets are very fine mesh nets that are 12 meters long and about 8 feet high that are suspended between poles in various habitat types. It’s very difficult to see mist nets, so as birds fly through the area they hit the net and gently drop into one of the net’s pockets. An experienced bird bander carefully extracts the bird, places it into a clean cotton bag, and brings it back to a central banding station or lab. In the lab, banders use specially-designed pliers to carefully close the band around the bird’s tarsus, then determine the age and sex of the bird, measure the wing length, quantify fat, weigh the bird, and release it. The banding process is quick: it usually takes less than a minute for each bird!
Who bands birds?
Bird banders operate under a permit from the federal Bird Banding Lab. Banders train as apprentices, often for many years, to learn and perfect the highly-specialized skills necessary to run their own banding stations. High-volume banding stations, usually those that operate during the migration seasons or that can catch hundreds of birds each day, usually have field techs, interns, and volunteers who help while they hone their skills.
Mist net at dawn.
When do we band birds?
Bird banders can band year-round and any time of the day or night, as long as it’s safe for birds! If it’s too hot, too cold, too windy, or too rainy we wait until conditions improve. Of course, the species and number of birds we catch depends on when we band: for example, it’s usually most productive to band songbirds in the mornings and to catch owls at night!
So, what is bird banding?
Bird banding is the process of catching birds, placing a numbered band on their legs, collecting data about each bird, then letting them go. The resulting database can be used to answer all kinds of questions about bird populations. Please stay tuned for our next blog to learn what sorts of questions we can answer from the data we collect during banding!
Annie Lindsay is Banding Program Manager at Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Powdermill Nature Reserve. Museum employees are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences and knowledge gained from working at the museum.