Connecting people with nature in Ontario's Mississippi Valley

“A Bird in Hand” presented by Lesley-Anne Howes, Canadian Wildlife Service

April 2012

“A Bird in Hand” presented by Lesley-Anne Howes, Canadian Wildlife Service

Looking into the unknown lives of birds using banding data: a lecture report by Cliff Bennett

The Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists (MVFN) 2011-12 natural history lecture series continued recently in Almonte. Guest speaker presenter for the seventh lecture “A Bird in Hand”, was Lesley Howes, biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Service in Ottawa.

Howes delivered an informed presentation to the public and MVFN members on the more than one hundred years of bird banding across North and South America. Bird banding research seems to have begun with the demise of the mourning dove, a game bird which was at one time in danger of being eliminated, like the passenger pigeon. Scientists and conservationists needed to know the patterns and life-style of the bird so they could try to protect it. The North American Bird Banding Protocol was established in 1923 following the 1916 signing of the Protection of Migratory Birds Act by Canada and the USA. These Acts demanded research into the numbers and species of birds travelling over national borders. Today, more than ever, we need to know where birds go, what they do and what conservation strategies can be used, in order to ensure they will be healthy into the future. Then and now most of the birds banded in Canada can be tracked at one time or another to the USA or further away.

Did you know that a red knot, a small shorebird the size of a robin, which breeds in the High Arctic, showed up in the Strait of Magellan at the tip of South America? How do we know that individual came so far? It was found with a band on its leg which showed it had been banded in the North-West Territories.

Bird banding is one of the most useful strategies used to track bird species. In fact it’s one of the major activities leading to a better understanding not only of migration routes and distances, but behaviour, population dynamics, and habitat requirements of our migrating avian friends. Also as one MVFN member noted, perhaps even of physiology. Recently banding data showed that the Greenland wheatear, a type of flycatcher, breeds in the Canadian Arctic and flies across the Atlantic to winter in Russia! How can a bird that weighs only 20-25 grams fly the Atlantic non-stop? Perhaps there are yet to be discovered new aspects of muscle action?

Always active in field work all over the world, Lesley Howes has been involved in banding many of the more than 70,000,000 banded birds on record from all over the Americas since 1923. 300,000 of these birds were banded in Canada. Howes asked the audience which bird species they thought was the most often banded. No one guessed the correct answer, the mallard duck. Howes went on to explain that, of all birds banded in Canada, 30% of those found with bands are found elsewhere in Canada, 68% are found in the USA and the rest are found internationally. More and more, with climate change, birds are moving globally. Canadian birds found in Europe and European birds found in Canada have a danger of carrying diseases to these areas. Knowing where a banded bird has been will allow authorities to act promptly to protect others in the species.

There are many bird banding stations throughout Canada and the world. Volunteers are always needed and are welcome. To be involved in bird banding, however, you need a permit. This requires you have a project in mind and qualified people to conduct it. Most bird banding stations are at permanent locations. Typically, birds are caught in flight in gentle, fine mist nets and animals are examined in hand followed by release after banding. The bird is weighed, measured, sexed and aged and all data is recorded. A small sample of blood which may be taken also yields vital data. The process takes about fifteen minutes before release.

Photo 3b MVFN bird banding  Photo 3a MVFN bird banding

Bird ‘bands’ may be simple metal tags, large wing patches, neck bands (used for geese), or other styles. They may be sophisticated and include a GPS to give instant information about location. Right: an identification band being attached to the leg of a Yellow Warbler. Left: a Scarlet Tanager is examined during banding. Photos Lesley Howes

Data is gathered when a bird is banded, and if and when banded birds are re-captured or found months or years later, more data can be gathered. Bands can range from a simple metal tag or coloured leg band, to a large patagial or wing marker, to a neck band i.e. such as may be used to band geese. Or a band may be as sophisticated as those with a GPS to give instant information as to the precise location at any given time of an animal.

The nearest banding station in our area is at the Innis Point Bird Observatory just west of Ottawa and they have facilities for long-term volunteers. If you find a banded bird or when a banded bird is found elsewhere in the world, the band numbers should be recorded by the finder and reported to the Canadian Wildlife Service at or to the US Audubon Society. These organizations can then combine information obtained when the individual was banded, with any new information obtained when the banded bird is re-caught or found, or when only a band is found.

Photo 1 MVFN bird banding

Lesley-Anne Howes (left) is thanked by MVFN President Joyce Clinton.

Photo 2 MVFN bird banding (1280x794)

After the bird banding talk there was time to examine dozens of specimens, bird bands and banding tools displayed by our guest speaker. Photos Pauline Donaldson

Back to the red knot, as a long distance traveller, it often has companions of other Arctic species including the Arctic tern, Eskimo curlew, ruddy turnstone and the white-rumped sandpiper. Howes concluded her lecture with slides of some other long-distance wanderers and answered questions from the audience. After enthusiastic applause from the over fifty members and guests present, Howes was thanked Joyce Clinton for showing us how ‘a bird in hand with a band’ is worth a wealth of data for bird conservation. After the lecture, there was time to view the dozens of banded bird specimens and the various bird bands and banding tools Howes had prepared for display.


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