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Bird Banding: A Way to Learn About Birds
Contributed by Dr. David Aborn

Dr. David Aborn

Bird banding is a useful tool in research. It involves catching birds in soft fabric nets and putting a small numbered metal bend on the bird's leg, like an identification bracelet.

What Can We Learn from Banding Birds?
Individual identification of birds makes possible studies of dispersal and migration, behavior and social structure, life-span and survival rate, reproductive success and population growth. When banded birds are captured, released, and reported from somewhere else we can retrace the movements of the individual bird. In this way we have learned that some species fly south using one pathway and return north by another. We have also learned where different species breed and where they spend the winter.

Bird Banding in Action (Click for larger pictures.)
Banding a Gray Catbird
A Banded Gray Catbird
Magnolia Warbler in Net
Observing an Ovenbird's Fat
Photos: David Aborn

Body Condition: An Important Indicator
One important aspect of banding in my research is looking at body condition. I am trying to see if urban parks are good places for migrants to rest and refuel during migration. This means I have to be able to tell one bird from another, so that if I recapture a bird I can see if it has gained or lost weight and fat. A bird's skin is very thin, and you can actually see the fat underneath. Fat is very important, because it is the fuel birds use for migration. If a park provides adequate food and shelter, then I should see birds gain weight and fat. If the habitat is poor, then the birds should lose weight and fat.

Bird Banding: Permit Required
Because banding birds requires capturing the birds and handling them, the banding of birds in the United States is controlled by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. People who want to apply for a banding permit must be able to show that they are qualified to safely trap, handle, and band the birds. Some potential banders learn in an apprenticeship program, working one-on-one with an active bander. Others learn by visiting bird observatories or banding groups. Still others take courses in banding and handling birds. It takes a lot of work and dedication to get a banding permit, but it is worth it because you get to learn so much!

How Birds are Banded
Video from long-term banding site at Crown Point, New York

Can you see the net?

Scientists catch songbirds in a mist net


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