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Altogether, the banders have by now clamped identifying anklets on 11 million North American birds, and by mass-production methods have pushed the rate up to an estimated 750,000 for 1959. Roughly one-fourth of these are waterfowl or other game species; the rest run the gamut from hummingbirds, chickadees and sparrows to trumpeter swans and great white herons. (Nobody is going to band a whooping crane, biggest North American bird, if the FWS can help it; the danger of injuring one of the few remaining specimens is too great.) And no fewer than 50,000 bands are recovered, one way or another, each year.
It is remarkable that methodical banding did not get its start until the early years of this century, simply because nobody until then had thought of using numbers, which make it possible to trace individual birds right back to the day and place of their banding. The Romans employed wild swallows (in addition to pigeons) to carry military intelligence and also to beat the bookies with the results of trotting races. The ancient and noble sport of falconry probably provided the earliest example of birds marked for the sake of establishing their individual identity. Marco Polo wrote that in his travels (1275-95) he had seen falcons with silver plates attached to their feet and bearing their own names as well as their owners'. European princes used a similar system. And remembering their sporting instincts, they also sometimes put a silver band on the leg of a heron that had survived a murderous attack by a falcon and set it free. There are astonishing "records" of long-lived herons and far-flying falcons tagged this way, but most cannot be credited, let alone confirmed.
Among early ornithologists Audubon came closest to the idea of modern banding. Near Philadelphia about 1803 he attached a light silver thread to the leg of young phoebes in a nest and was delighted when two returned the following year.
As it is, honor for introducing the serial system goes to Denmark's Hans Christian Mortensen, who began putting numbered aluminum bands on the legs of starlings in 1899. Two years later, with no knowledge of Mortensen's work, Dr. Leon J. Cole of the Smithsonian Institution suggested a similar method. Dr. Paul Bartsch put the idea into practice in 1902 by tagging 23 black-crowned night herons with numbered bands marked "Return to Smithsonian Institution." The first long-distance recovery in the Americas involved one of Bartsch's herons, banded in 1903 and found dead in Cuba in 1905.
Despite the obvious advantages of coordination and standardization, banding remained haphazard for years, with various groups and individuals using their own private bands. The most dramatic of these was one that showed up on a mallard shot in North Carolina in January 1910, reading: "Have Faith in God! Write Jack Miner, Kingsville, Ont." Thus evangelized, the mallard shooter wrote, and learned that it was the first duck Miner had banded (in August 1909) at what was to become the most famous of America's private sanctuaries. But for many years Miner put no numbers on his bands.
The American Bird Banding Association, set up in 1909 with Dr. Cole as president, failed to bring order out of chaos. When the association was dissolved in 1920 the federal government's Biological Survey (later merged with the Fish and Wildlife Service) took over the task of coordination. Responsibility for U.S. banding has rested there ever since. The Canadian Wildlife Service has similar powers in Canada, and the two cooperate smoothly. But though banders love the standard bands which the government provides, they are ruggedly individualistic, with strong ideas on what should be banded, when and where and how. To gain a forum for their views and the benefits of group strength they have four regional organizations: the Northeastern, Eastern, Inland and Western Bird Banding associations, each of which publishes technical news for members. To the Northeastern goes the honor of publishing Bird Banding, recognized as the national journal in the field.
Numbered banding began with heavy emphasis on nestlings or other unfledged young—they stayed put or were easy to catch. No great attention was at first paid to waterfowl, partly because America's principal duck factories are on northern prairie sloughs, hard to get to and harder to negotiate when anybody gets there. But after World War II money from the federal tax on ammunition was prorated to the states, and some went into banding to support the gathering of information which would eventually help the sportsman. Ducks Unlimited banded thousands of birds on the areas it restored to breeding. The FWS made a cooperative deal with CWS and sent teams to Canada to band big numbers of waterfowl on their breeding grounds. A few private banders who raised waterfowl or ran gunning preserves lost their permits because of alleged violations of the rules or "conflict of interest." Over the protests of many amateurs and some professionals, most waterfowl are now banded by government professionals; only a few amateurs have permits, which are zealously policed. But volunteers band the vast majority of nongame birds.
These volunteers, who are in the game for the love of it and nothing else, have little in common except their passion for banding. They include some professionals, like ornithologists from museums and universities and the guardians of bird sanctuaries. The rest are clergymen and lawyers, plumbers and butchers, writers and nuclear physicists. Many are housewives who can watch a pot and still keep an eye trained through the kitchen window to see whether there are birds in their traps.
Banders are as inventive and ingenious as trout fishermen devising new flies or gunners improving a scope sight. They get a chance to show these qualities with the first strings of bands sent them by the Fish and Wildlife Service. Split down the side, the bands are closed tight to keep them on the wire on which they are strung. Each must be spread to fit on a bird's leg, then squeezed shut again so it will stay on. (It must be loose enough to slide up and down the leg, but not so big or loose as to work off over the foot.) Opening the band calls for ground-down needle-nose pliers; for the smallest sizes, paper staple openers (also ground down) are good because they spread when the handle is squeezed—a more natural hand movement than spreading pliers. Modifying pliers so that they will hold an opened band gently, then close it to a smooth cylinder, keeps banders busy for hours.
It is in catching birds for banding, however, that the banders rise to impressive heights of ingenuity. Hiking around to nests and banding unfledged young is now (with a major exception for waterfowl) not only pass� but severely frowned upon. Too many of the nestlings die, often because human intruders at a nest attract predators, and so returns are few. Most banders begin with one or two simple traps, soon find themselves aspiring to bigger game and equip themselves with up to 20 traps of half a dozen basic designs (see box). There is an expanding department of special devices. For woodpeckers which work their way up trees, vertical fences or leads of hardware cloth steer the birds into a funnellike trap attached to the trunk and baited with goodies such as suet. Shore birds (sandpipers and their kin), feeding at random on mud flats, can be steered into traps by leads or chicken-wire guide walls. The Pennsylvania woodcock trap consists of a string net on a semicircular frame of two-foot diameter, attached to the action of a break-back rat trap and triggered the same way—but the loose net flies up and over the bird and holds it unharmed.