Sunday, January 27, 2013

Bird Banding - hands-on science!

We headed out to the woods today to hang out with the ornithologist from the local college, and to watch him band birds.   We did this last year and he only "caught" two birds while we were there, so our expectations were not high, but it was unanimous, we wanted to go back.  When we arrived he was freeing a very vocal titmouse from the netting, so we jumped right into it!

We followed him inside to watch as he recorded the band number (this one was already banded from a previous year), measured the tail and wing, looked for body fat, sexed the bird (looking at plumage), and weighed it.  He's been studying the titmouse and chickadee populations to see how long they live.  He said the longest recorded life was 10 years, which was about 8 more than I was guessing.  After this first bird, he put Eliza in charge of recording all the numbers and information, which she loved.

weighing the bird (and peering at it through the magnifying glass!)

Ani's bird of the year is the titmouse, so she had the honor of setting this one free!  (The girls asked Bob if he had a bird of the year and he said "Of course", which was nice 'cause they usually get a blank look in response to that question, but he said he had the first one that he heard - a Carolina Wren - and the first one that he saw - a Cardinal)

After that there was hardly a moment when there wasn't a bird needing to be freed from the net or one of the traps on the ground.  In between the freeing, measuring, recording and releasing, there was so much information coming at me, I don't know that I can remember it all, but did you know that birds have 4 cones in their eyes, where we have 3?  What they can do with that extra cone is see very subtle differences in color - the greys of the titmouse that seems indistinguishable to us come across strongly enough to another titmouse that they indicate the sex of the bird.  It also enables them to see further into the ultra-violet spectrum than we can.

White-breasted nuthatch
Carolina Wren

I was really grateful that Bob let the girls participate as much as they did.  He would just ask - do you want to give this a try? - and they did, so he coached them and stepped aside.  Ani tried her hand at freeing a titmouse from the trap, but it was hard to get a handle on it - and they bite! - and finally it managed to squeeze under the edge and we let it go so it wouldn't get hurt.

attaching a band
Slate-colored Junco

There were so many birds, they even let me get in on the rotation for releasing them! I was a little hesitant about the titmouse; they are such feisty little birds.

And, yeah! I got bit several times while waiting for Eliza to take a picture!!  It was totally worth it; one of them that I held was so still and quiet, and just being able to hold such a wildly alive little creature, feeling its heart beating in my hand, was such a wonderful experience...bite, shmite.

White-breasted nuthatch
measuring wing feathers

Eliza banded one of the nuthatches, which meant she had to add her name to the official register as one of the banders.  Pretty cool.

Nuthatch waiting its turn, with the coats
White-throated sparrow
 We learned something funny about these guys.  The males with the white stripes on their heads usually mate with the females with the tan stripes (and not the females with the white stripes).  Vice versa as well - the males with the tan stripes are preferred by the females with the white stripes.  Apparently the white-striped males are aggressive and dominant and so "win" whomever they want, whereas the white-striped females know the tan-stripes to be much better providers and better mates, so they are content with how that all shakes down.  Huh! So much more complicated than I would have imagined for these little creatures!

Eliza also helped free some of the birds from the fine netting around the yard.  She grew quite confident about this titmouse, and freed it with a little help about the feet. I was really impressed; you can't be wishy-washy or hesitant about this part or the birds can hurt themselves by getting further entangled. 

Female Downy Woodpecker

Eliza guessed this one might peck, so didn't want to be the one to let it go - she was right!

And of course there's a cat around.  That's Jehosaphat there, just biding his time till someone's not watching the door... 


merry said...

WOW! You guys do the neatest things! I think my favorite, in spite of the bites, is the titmouse. What a beautiful, soft face! And I also love the yellow spot on the white bellied sparrow. I bet those little hearts really pounded in your hands!

Kerry said...

How interesting! I think I must be a white-striped female, myself.

Eliza got some good shots:)

Anonymous said...

Oh this looks amazing! Debbie, are you crying in the picture where you're letting the wee one go? I LOVE YOU!


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