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Birds in the Hand

Volunteer bird banders combine science with adventure.

By Eileen Mattei

Removing a yellow and gray bird from a cotton bag, bird bander Mark Conway identifies a mourning warbler. He attaches a uniquely numbered band to the bird’s leg before taking five measurements: wing and tail length, two beak statistics, and weight. He then establishes the age and sex. Volunteer Jason West takes a cloacal sample from the warbler with a small swab that will be sent to UCLA to test for the avian flu strain H5N1 in the wild bird population.

Far from a genteel pastime, bird banding offers the drama of bites from the jagged-edge beaks of cardinals and pre-dawn treks to set mist nets, plus the opportunity to expand scientific knowledge. Bird banding, long an indispensable tool for the study of wild birds by providing information on birds’ life spans, distribution, habitats and populations, now is part of the early warning system for an avian flu pandemic.

Conway, a high school biology teacher in Harlingen and one of a few licensed master banders in Texas, is an avocational ornithologist, like 25 percent of the nation’s 2,000 federally licensed master banders. He began banding 10 years ago as a way to keep involved in science and as a change of pace from teaching teens. Instead, he is teaching, guiding a rotating group of 25 adults — science teachers, birders, master naturalists — who work under his supervision capturing and banding birds weekly in Cameron County.

With his first and middle fingers, Conway forms a light harness crossing the bird’s shoulders to its chest while his little finger supports the bird’s feet. “This is the bander’s hold,” he explains. As a federal permit holder, his foremost responsibility is to maintain the birds’ welfare, tracking both the weather and the people who volunteer to work with him. He files reports quarterly on banded birds with the Federal Bird Banding Lab and intends to publish results on site fidelity about species that return faithfully to a locale. Nets set in the same locations every season yield population dynamics data for the Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship program.

Conway’s crew strings about a dozen nearly invisible nets, and every 15 minutes they check them. “First, you figure out what side of the net the bird flew into and then you free the feet,” Mark says, as he demonstrates untangling tiny claws from the net’s fine threads and then, grasping its legs near the body, backing the bird out of the net — body, wings and, at last, head. “If you get in trouble and can’t get the bird loose, call me. Don’t stress the bird.”

Seasoned helpers like Dick Roessler, Jason West and Ruben Zamora deftly remove warblers, vireos and thrashers, slipping them into clean bags. Back at the banding table, Conway challenges them to identify the sex and age of newly banded birds, which is a tough task even with the banders’ thick guidebook, The Identification Guide to North American Birds by Peter Pyle, opened in front of them along with various field guides. Close examinations of feather edges with a hand lens and other subtle traits often determine the answers. While the goal is scientific discovery, volunteers also enjoy the thrill of holding wild birds and seeing them up-close and personal in a way that few others ever have a chance to see them. For more information, visit <www.pwrc.usgs.gov/bbl> or <www.aves.net/inlandbba>.

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