SI Vault
Gilbert Cant
October 19, 1959
The bird band is a vital aid to science—and it is also the symbol of a sporting activity as exciting as the chase, as this account by a banding devotee shows
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
October 19, 1959

When You See This, Act!

The bird band is a vital aid to science—and it is also the symbol of a sporting activity as exciting as the chase, as this account by a banding devotee shows

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5

The whereabouts of the chimney swift's insect larders in winter was long a mystery. Tracked as far as Panama, the birds disappeared into the green vastness of South America. Then, in 1944 the U.S. Embassy in Lima sent to Washington 13 bands "from some swallows killed by Indians in the region between the Putumayo and the Napo rivers." The birds had been killed in November and December of 1943. Five of the bands were Ben Coffey's. Three more were from Nashville, and one was from Ontario. Here was the needed proof that swifts spend their winters over the selva of the upper Amazon and its headwater feeders.

The pintail is the most notorious peripatetic. One banded in Labrador in September 1951 was shot only 18 days later at Dartmouth in southern England. Another, banded at Tule Lake, California in August 1949, tried for a distance record and did 4,000 miles in three months to Penrhyn (or Tongareva), a southeastern Pacific atoll. Evidently there is two-way traffic, because a pintail banded on Maui in the Hawaiian chain was shot a year later in Alberta. And the species crisscrosses the continent: one banded on the Innoko River in Alaska was shot, two seasons later, in Delaware. More remarkable is the pintail's recently discovered passion to head west. One banded in Alberta by Ducks Unlimited in 1953 was shot early in 1957 in Matsushima Bay, 200 miles north of Tokyo. Another, banded at the Lower Souris National Wildlife Refuge, North Dakota in 1957, was shot last January by Yuichi Nishida on the western coast of Japan.


Finally, the pintail shares with the lesser snow goose the unenviable distinction of being the bird that defects most often to the far side of the Iron Curtain. Strangely, of almost 100 bands recovered by the Soviet bird-ringing service, more than half have been from birds fleeing the soft life of California for the soul-searing rigors of Siberia.

Other waterfowl crisscross the continent in less extreme but still baffling fashion. Canada's duck factories do not supply birds neatly, by the shortest routes, to the four U.S. fly-ways south of them. Instead, many areas supply ducks to two or three flyways, and some to all four. This has made it impossible to forecast accurately how heavy the flight will be on any flyway and how the seasons and limits should be set.

In an effort to fill in the missing details American and Canadian authorities have now taken to banding at the nestside, a method that calls for hard-headed men with soft-mouthed dogs. The mallard was picked as the bird to concentrate on because it is the prime target of North American gunners. But as a duckling it is the most vigorous and elusive. To find as many mallard nests as possible, U.S.-Canadian teams set out just before midsummer with their dogs.

To reach a prairie pothole, even by jeep or Land-Rover via rutted dirt roads axle-deep in mud, is often a challenge. This met, the dogs are set out to scour the surrounding tussock grass. Early in the season pointers do well because they indicate a setting hen mallard which can sometimes be caught under a dip net. Retrievers often catch the bird as it begins to take wing. Later, when the ducklings are wandering around, black Labrador retrievers are favored. The ducklings are usually paddling in shallow water when the banding crew arrives; after they have been frightened to shore, it is the dogs' job to find them and carry them to the bander. At the end of the breeding season dogs also catch flightless adults, either on their own or in cooperation with drivers in boats who herd the ducks ashore.

By all these methods, FWS expected to band 50,000 mallards this year, bringing the species total to 958,000, of which 170,000 have been recovered. For the pintail, the 1959 target was 45,000; for the black duck, 14,000; blue-winged teal, 20,000; and Canada goose (including the small western races), 14,000. A poor season on the prairies has cut actual bandings below these expectations.


Although only about 25% of the birds banded in North America are waterfowl and other game birds, they account for a disproportionate 85% of current recoveries. The explanation is twofold: 1) these birds are legally hunted and, once shot, their bodies are eagerly sought; 2) their leg bands are big enough for the instructions to be stamped into their outer surface in letters big enough to be easily read. By contrast, the bodies of small songbirds, for instance, are inconspicuous, and even when exposed on a road shoulder are avoided by many people who "just can't stand touching anything dead." So their bands are more likely to be overlooked.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5