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Spring Migration and Bird Banding Vignette
Leslie DeCourcey, FPDCC
March 28, 2015

Birds are the most familiar wildlife in the world and are found almost everywhere from the poles to the tropics. Birds are adaptable to environmental conditions and climate change by expanding or altering their range as their habitat needs are impacted by human activity or natural evolution. Birds do not leave because the weather gets cold. They leave for warmer regions in search of food.

Bird bones and eggs have been found at many archaeological digs, establishing that humans have hunted birds and used birds and their eggs as food from the beginning days of primitive life and civilization.

The history of bird banding and the relationship between humans and birds goes back to the earliest days of recorded history.

In 254 BC, Quintus Fabius Pictor recorded the use of birds as message carriers by the Romans. Marco Polo wrote about falconry in Asia from 1275 and 1296. "Each bird belonged to a sovereign with its name and that of the owner inscribed on a silver tablet on its feet so it could be returned if lost or caught."

Royal falconers in Europe used metal bird banding to identify and recapture escaped or stolen birds. An escaped falcon owned by Henry IV was discovered l,360 miles away in Malta. Royalty banded birds in their forests and hunting lands. This included blue birds, herons, ducks, buzzards, swift and storks. Banding included collars and leg rings.

But it was not until 1899 when Hans Christian Mortensen, a Danish schoolteacher, began putting aluminum rings on local birds and birds of prey. By l909, banding birds for study began in East Prussia, Ireland, England, Hungary and France.

Photo from Leslie DeCourcey

John James Audubon is acknowledged as the first bird bander in the Americas. Leon J. Cole introduced the concept of scientific bird banding so that consistent methods and records could be used around the world. Cole and other bird banders organized a way to share data and compare practices. Cole presented a program to the American Ornithologists Union entitled "The Tagging of Wild Birds as a Means of Studying Their Movements."

In the early 1900's, declining numbers of many species of birds, including waterfowl, and the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon, led to The Migratory Bird Convention signed by Canada and the U.S. in 1916.

In 1920, Frederick Lincoln took over the Migratory Bird Convention, coordinating bird banding in America.

Between 1920 and 1946, Lincoln organized record keeping procedures, recruited birders, established standards, fostered international cooperation and promoted banding for scientific research and management. In 1936, Mexico joined the Migratory Bird Convention.

The 100th year of scientific bird banding was celebrated in 2002. Because of bird banding, the bald eagle and peregrine falcon are recovering after nearly becoming extinct. In 2011, more than 64 million birds have been banded in the U.S and Canada. 35 million birds have been recovered and returned. 1.2 million birds are banded every year.

Bird banding has produced data which helps researches gather information on mortality rates, behavior, social structure, population trends, migratory routes, distance migrating birds can travel, habitat needs, predators and life span.

No information was ever obtained about the Passenger Pigeon which was hunted to extinction in 1914. If banding had been practiced at this time, it is possible that the Passenger Pigeon could have been saved before its population numbers crashed beyond preservation. " From billions to none" Today, the Illinois Prairie Chicken is on the verge of extinction, but heroic efforts are underway to save the bird.

The banding process begins with setting up a soft mist net to capture birds being studied. Birds are gently removed from the nets in less than a minute. The bird is placed in a paper bag until information about it can be recorded.

The bird is identified by species, field marks and color. Measurements are taken of the wing length, feather length, tail length and gender. Some birds are easy to identify by gender such as Mallards. Differences between males and females of some species are not readily obvious.

Each bird is given its own serial number on the band which is attached to the bird's leg before it is released.

It is not unusual for banded birds to be recaptured as they return in the spring to the same location of their previous capture. As a result, banding records determine how long birds live, their health and their migration routes.

Bird longevity has surprised banders.

For example:
Ruby throated hummingbird - 9 years
Northern cardinal - 11 years
Mourning dove - 30 years
Grackle - 33 years

Songbirds usually arrive in Illinois as trees begin to leafout. Insects, which become abundant at this time, feed on the new leaves and provide food for the passerines. Climate change can interfere with the timing of the arriving passerines if they migrate either too early or too late to find sufficient insect food sources for themselves or their young.

Ruby Crowned Kinglet - (Flickr User Nigel/Winnu)

Knowledge obtained from bird banding research has helped identify flyways, track individuals, determine impacts of environmental change on populations, calculate habitat loss on population numbers, identify decline in threatened or endangered species and calculate recovery of species previously in decline.

For more information on Bird Banding, go to: /
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