Birding Column: Banding Birds at Devils Postpile

Mathew Tekulsky
The Birdman of Bel Air
February 3, 2004

Mathew Tekulsky writes a regular column about birding in his backyard and neighborhood in Bel Air, California. You can follow his encounters with the birds of the Santa Monica Mountains here on National Geographic News BirdWatcher every fortnight or so.

It was 6:30 a.m. in early August, and I had just driven in to the Devils Postpile National Monument near Mammoth Springs, California. As I walked through the campground to catch the trail to the Postpile (the name given to 60-foot columns of basalt in the area), I saw a telltale sign that told me that birders were around—and not just birders, but professional birders.

It was a fold-up table that was covered with bird-banding paraphernalia—bands, calipers, rulers, pliers, clipboards with notes, identification books, a scale—the usual assortment of gadgets that field biologists use to capture, measure, weigh, and otherwise study birds before releasing them back into the wild.

I had stumbled upon the eastern crew of PRBO Conservation Science, and for the next five hours, I watched field biologists River Gates, Gernot Huber, and Leah Culp (along with volunteer Margina Rhyne) capture and band more than 100 birds, including the orange-crowned warbler; Wilson's warbler; MacGillivray's warbler; yellow warbler; Steller's jay; song sparrow; Oregon junco; lazuli bunting; calliope hummingbird; pine grosbeak; and the irrepressible red-breasted sapsucker.

Each bird was captured in one of the ten nets that the biologists had placed among the willows on the edge of the meadows and along the river's edge. The nets were made of 30-millimeter (1.2-inch) green mesh and were about 30 feet (nine meters) long and seven feet (two meters) high. The birds would fly into the netting and then drop into a pocket that was built into each side of the net.

The nets were operated for five hours, starting fifteen minutes after sunrise, and they were checked every half hour for new captures. The crew conducted studies at this site every ten days, from May 1 through August 15. This methodology is identical to those of other field biologists in other locations, so that everyone's results are consistent and easily comparable. The aggregate results are designed to give a clear and accurate picture of bird populations throughout the territories that are studied.

The first bird that I saw banded was a calliope hummingbird. It was given the number Y89802, but since hummingbird bands are so small, the Y equals the number 4000. Each bird, therefore, has a nine-digit number on its band—room for endless combinations.

Needless to say, this was a priceless opportunity to observe tiny birds such as the warblers up close. But by far the most fascinating character of this group was the red-breasted sapsucker. Now, this fellow flies into the net, and as soon as he becomes entangled, he stays perfectly still and quiet, so as not to attract predators. He also remains silent while he is transported back to the table in a small cloth bag, and he remains quiet while he hangs in the bag after it is attached to a clothespin under the side of the table, as each bird waits his turn to be studied.

But as soon as he is taken out of the bag, he starts squawking, flapping his wings wildly, and flailing his feet in an attempt to get free from his handlers. Meanwhile, his leg is banded; his beak and feathers are measured; the scientists blow on his belly to expose his bare abdomen and see if any fat has been deposited there; and he is weighed. This is accomplished by placing him upside down in an empty can of fruit juice concentrate that is open on one side. The bird's rump sticks out of the top of the can, but since he's scrunched in there so tightly, he can't move, and since he can't see in the dark, he remains quiet.

But as soon as he's pulled out of that can, there go the wings again, there goes the squawking (or rather, screeching!), and there go the claws, digging into the fingers of our intrepid scientists. Indeed, it takes about one to three minutes of prying in order to extricate the tight grip of these claws from a person's hand. But finally, the bird is free, and off he flies into the clear blue yonder.

All in a day's work.

Tail Piece: Why Birds Are Banded

Continued on Next Page >>


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