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
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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

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Even if an unsqueamish boy scout working for a nature study badge finds a banded sparrow, all he will see on the outside of the small band is the number. The laconic notation "F & W Serv Wash USA" is hidden on the inside of the band. If it is to be read the band must be opened with a scout knife or small screwdriver and flattened. Even then it may not be understood. How many small birds with bands are thrown away because the finders do not understand the system is anybody's guess. The wastage is frustrating, because although 8% of all banded birds are recovered (shot or re-trapped), the rate is only one-tenth of 1% for the smallest songbirds; it rises with the size of both bird and band. The number has to be on the outside because only thus can retrapped birds be identified and their movements recorded, without injuring them. Wanted: a way to get all the necessary information, in legible form, on the outside of the band used for the smallest chickadees, warblers and finches—only 5 millimeters long and 9 millimeters around—about as big as the head of a kitchen match. (Even this is too big for hummingbirds. Their bands have to be cut down, in both dimensions, which destroys part of the number and inscription. Not surprisingly, there have been no recoveries of hummingbirds except those retrapped at their original banding station.)

Though some hawks and even a few ducks peck and pull at their bands, most birds do not seem to object to their ID tags. Some sport an array like costume jewelry, because for special projects the FWS authorizes the use of additional bands made of colored plastic. These make it possible to single out birds hatched in a particular year, or having some other characteristic in common, from a local population without need for retrapping.

Birds react variously and sometimes unpredictably to the shock of being held in the hand to be banded. That little chunk of Christmas cheer, the chickadee, fights with the ferocity of a scalded wildcat. The gentle, sibilant song sparrow is almost as combative. The evening grosbeak can draw blood with the big bill for which it is named; so can the cardinal. An occasional blue jay will set up a piercing scream like the concentrated cry of all the Sabine women—and attract feathered curiosity seekers from a quarter mile around to see what atrocity is being perpetrated. Most birds calm down if they are kept on their backs during banding: the unnatural position disorients them so that they sometimes forget to fly when the bander's hand is opened, and they have to be nudged into making their getaway. Crow-sized or bigger birds are best handled by two people, one to hold the bird and the other to apply the band. A few kinds are downright dangerous: large owls and some hawks because of their talons, and herons, which tend to aim their daggerlike bills at their captors' eyes.

"Once trapped, twice shy" is far from the rule. In practically any species, some birds become trap-happy and keep getting themselves caught because they cannot resist a free lunch. Others of the same species, for no known reason, become uncannily skillful at picking up feed from around the traps, and manage never to get caught.

Professional and amateur alike, banders love to get together at the annual meetings of their regional associations. They listen to learned papers on the statistical analysis of recoveries and returns, sitting on the edge of their chairs when somebody describes a new gimmick. (One of the latest: hi-fi tape recordings of squealing rodents to attract the birds which prey on them.)

Eventually they talk about how they got into the sport, and why. No bander has expressed the motivation better than the famous British bander Ronald Lockley: "In the ringing of birds the ineradicable hunting and collecting instincts of man are satisfied in an entirely innocuous manner: there is something of the primitive excitement of the chase experienced in the ringer's efforts to trap or snare his quarry; there is none of the unpleasantness of killing, but all the delights of examining a wild bird in the hand, and releasing it afterwards with its message of identity."


One further satisfaction that all banders want is to increase the proportion of bands sent in to the FWS, instead of their being discarded out of ignorance or by design. Some paranoid gunners deliberately throw away waterfowl bands, fearing that the FWS will use the data to find excuses for shortening seasons or reducing bag limits. That is far from the program's purpose. While temporary cutbacks may be dictated in a poor duck year, the ultimate goal is conservation in its broadest sense. Allen J. Duvall, head of the Bird Banding Office, puts it thus: "We want to conserve all wildlife, even though the balance of nature does change. With waterfowl and other game species, the annual harvesting of a replaceable crop is an essential element in the conservation picture. We don't want to spoil anybody's legitimate sport. What we want to do is to make sure that there will be enough birds of all kinds, including game species for the gunner, for our kids and our kids' kids."

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