OUT: Tracking a bird’s history

That silvery band around a bird’s leg is much more than a simple ring of aluminum.

“There’s almost an entire history in each band,” said bird bander Meredith McBurney of the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory. McBurney is conducting a six-week-long banding (“ringing” in birder lingo) operation here in the Grand Valley.

Bird bands come in 22 sizes of bands, not including hummingbird bands, which are cut to fit each bird. Band sizes range from the 2-millimeter 0A (which McBurney wrapped Monday on a white-crowned sparrow and a Wilson’s warbler) to the 29-mm 9C, which would fit a bird the size of a large raptor or pelican.

The 0A bands are 13/64 of an inch long and have numbers 1/16th of an inch high.

According to the U.S. Geological Service, the first systematic bird-banding in North American began in 1902 when Dr. Paul Bartsch of the Smithsonian Institution banded 23 Black-crowned Night-herons at Washington, D.C. He was the first to use serially numbered leg bands with the year and a “Return to Smithsonian Institution” address inscribed on them.

Today, waterfowl hunters often find banded birds and it’s not uncommon for back-yard feeders to attract banded songbirds. Bands provided by the USGS Bird Banding Laboratory are made of aluminum and are inscribed “CALL 1-800-327 BAND” and “WRITE BIRD BAND LAUREL MD 20708 USA” followed by a unique 8 or 9 digit number.

Recapturing a banded bird strikes a semi-celebration among birders. The information keyed to the band number reveals a lot of the birds’ history.

“The first morning we were here, Jacob brought in bird and said, ‘It’s already banded,’” McBurney said. “I said. ‘No way, it can’t have a band,  we just started,’ but sure enough, it was a banded bird.”

Jacob is Jacob Cooper, one of the valley’s impressive young birders, and he had found a Virginia’s warbler that had been banded six years ago near Vega Reservoir.

McBurney submitted the band information to the USGS and received in return a certificate revealing the bird had been banded as a first-year bird on Aug. 26, 2002 at Holland Creek. A search of several maps and Internet sites indicated an Anne Holland Creek, a tributary of Plateau Creek south of Vega Reservoir.

McBurney treated the certificate like the prize it is.

“To recapture a bird banded six years ago, 60 miles away and 3,500 feet higher is pretty cool,” McBurney said.

According to an entry on Wikipedia, an online reference site, the oldest banded bird known is a Manx Shearwater ringed as an adult (at least 5 years old) in July 1953. The bird was recaptured in July 2003, when it was at least 55 years old.

An Arctic Tern was banded as a chick (not yet able to fly) on the Farne Islands off the Northumberland coast in eastern Britain in summer 1982. That bird was recaptured in Melbourne, Australia in October 1982, a sea journey of more than 14,000 miles in just three months from fledging.

If you see or capture a banded bird, you can report the band number to the USGS two ways: online at http://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/bbl or by callling toll-free 1-800-327-BAND (2263) from anywhere in Canada, the United States and most parts of the Caribbean.

The operator will need to know the band number, how, when and where the bird or band was found. You will receive certificate with the bird’s history.


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