May 19, 2013

Bird-banding science takes off

While a delight for children to observe, the practice can shed light on important issues such as climate change.

By North Cairn
Staff Writer

The kindergartners and first-graders can't quite believe their eyes: Live little birds in small cotton bags that can fit in the palms of their hands. And then take flight.

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Biologist Patrick Keenan helps Morgan Earls, a Waynflete student, release a veery after banding it Tuesday at River Point in West Falmouth.

Photos by John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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Biologist Kevin Regan holds a Nashville warbler that had been netted and was being banded before its release.

Additional Photos Below

On this sunny morning at the Audubon Preserve at River Point in Falmouth, about 25 children from the Waynflete School in Portland sit in a semicircle in front of the open barn doors, where biologist Patrick Keenan is demonstrating the process of bird banding.

Keenan holds a small warbler in his left hand, gently aligning his fingers like bars through which the bird peers at the schoolchildren.

"This is a magnolia warbler," said Keenan, outreach director of the Biological Research Institute in Gorham. "Who can tell me what it eats?"

"Flowers?" piped a little girl in the back row.

"That's a good guess," said Keenan. "But actually this guy ... eats insects."

While this was an exercise in education, bird-banding -- like the long-term observations of bird-watchers across the state -- has come into its own as a scientific method to monitor birds' movements and behavior. Scientists say that the migratory variations revealed by banding can shed light on such important issues as climate change, persistent toxic chemicals in the environment and habitat loss.

Banding presents scientifically reliable information to study not only behavior and patterns among birds but also disease and pollution, Keenan said. And that information turns out to have correlations to human medicine. For example, surveys of Eastern equine encephalitis in bird blood have been conducted at River Point, he said.

At the Audubon preserve, Keenan moved around the front of the gathered children, his hands circling in a wide arc like a farmer scattering seed to chickens. He holds onto the warbler as he swings one way, then the other, giving everyone a close look.

"Who'd like to let him go?" asked Keenan.

A half-dozen children leap to their feet, raising their hands like hatchlings flapping.

"Can I?" said one, performing a little leap, the better to be seen and heard.

"Can I?" peeped another. "Can I?"

Keenan later said banding can nurture an awe of wildlife. "It's a pretty powerful and amazing thing ... to handle a bird and hand it to someone and they let it go," he said.

In order to obtain permission to capture birds for banding, the state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife requires that the intent must be to gather information for research.

Each bird that wings into one of the 10 mist nets spread across 10 acres at River Point lies in a hammock-like cradle of thin black netting, suspended in midair, so that predators are unable to reach it. With its feathers pinned lightly against its body, it remains there, until it is recovered during monitoring checks conducted every half-hour. When retrieved, each bird is placed in a small cloth bag, somewhat like a pillow case.

To gather banding information, a numbered aluminum ring (imprinted with a contact phone number and Web address) is placed on the right leg of each bird. Each nine-digit ID number is unique, something akin to an avian Social Security number, according to Judy Camuso, an IFW biologist.

The number enables anyone to retrieve the bird and help track it, no matter where it turns up.

Recovered birds at River Point are identified, weighed and measured, including their wing length, age and body condition -- feathers, feet and fat -- to find out how they are faring and, perhaps, whether they are breeding.

The data gathered from banding reveal migration (arrival and departure times and destinations), behavior, mating fidelity and preference of habitat. Some of the earliest records trace back to the 1500s.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Patrick Keenan holds a Canada warbler for students. “At River Point, we’re interested in timing, abundance and diversity of migratory songbirds,” he said.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer


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