To observe birds in their natural setting is one of my favorite pastimes. Binoculars are generally indispensable to properly identify a species from a distance, because most will not tolerate being encroached upon. Seeing wild birds from close-up is a rare privilege. Banding stations offer such views. One I am familiar with and have visited repeatedly is located not too far from Colorado Springs at Chico Basin Ranch, in the eastern reaches of El Paso County.
In addition to being an environmentally-conscious, conservation-oriented, active cattle ranch, Chico Basin is the number one birding hotspot in El Paso County as its terrain lies along a migratory route. For that reason, the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, under the auspices of the US Department of the Interior, organizes a four-week banding event staffed by master banders each spring and fall. Nets are erected in densely vegetated areas, and avians that get entangled in the fine mesh are carefully extracted. To keep them calm and protected until their evaluation, they are enclosed in hand-sewn cotton bags corresponding to their various sizes, and hung on a numbered rack according to the nets where they were found.
When it is the bird’s turn, it is pored over painstakingly. Its feathers are examined, fat stores assessed, wingspan and tail length measured. Age and sex is determined with the help of additional parameters, such as state of plumage, degree of skull ossification, and stage of molting. When a captive’s identity is still uncertain, beak and other, more arcane measurements are in order. Banding stations are repositories of the tools of the trade, and of relevant ornithological literature. A copy of the Bible of banders, Peter Pyle’s Identification of North American Birds is mandatory, as is the tabular version which enumerates numerous pertinent details about distinguishing features of each species. Nobody knows everything, but every bander knows where to look up information. And fast, to limit the amount of handling time and stress.
A light, numbered aluminum band, that does not interfere with flight, is then selected from a neatly organized tackle box, and fastened to one leg, based on that extremity’s thickness. Experienced banders know which diameter to choose, but a nifty gauge, or one of many lists can assist in the selection. Its unique serial number allows tracking of avian movements over vast distances. Recapture at the site of original banding to which individuals may return during future migrations occurs not infrequently. I was surprised to learn that the likelihood is only 1 in 10,000 in a different location. Very recently, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology published an online article about a Yellow Warbler being banded in northern Colombia, before it was re-captured in New York State 2 months and 2300 miles later, no small sensation.
The final step consists of establishing the bird’s weight by placing it head first in a tube large enough to hold it, while immobilizing it sufficiently to prevent injuries. That accomplished, it either wriggles out on its own once the cylinder is held horizontally, or, more typically, the bander extricates it, cups it between two hands, then slowly lifts the uppermost. After this ordeal, the feathered creatures fly off into the adjacent trees, a few immediately, others following a moment of reorientation.
The differing reactions to their capture are equally fascinating. Some individuals seem silent and subdued, others anxious and agitated. A few appear utterly indignant at their confinement and express their displeasure vocally and voluminously.
Banders in action are reminiscent of dancers in an artfully choreographed performance. Birds, the beguiling ballerinas, are gently but assuredly lifted, repeatedly rotated, and finally released. As I watch these winged wonders vanish into the foliage, I wish them smooth sailing. May they gain enough weight during their layover to carry them securely to their wintering grounds, find sufficient habitat and nourishment there, and bless us with their presence again come spring.
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