Scrunched down in
the tidebush on the bank of Pope's Creek where it runs into the Potomac River
near Washington's birthplace, Garnett G. Horner Jr. was thinking about
Christmas, only two days away: a few nice fat ducks would help to make the
holiday table truly festive. Horner, 24, who lives only two miles from
tidewater's edge and helps in his father's lumber business, had his wish that
day: in his bag was a drake canvasback. Four days later Horner bagged an
immature male black duck. Soon he was able to tell his gunning companions that
on Aug. 6, 1958 his cannie had been paddling around a slough at Tetlin, Alaska,
4,000 miles to the northwest; and a month later, his blackie had been dabbling
in Perch Lake in New York's Jefferson County, 450 miles to the north.
Also last fall
Keith Haren of Denton, Texas shot a mourning dove. Exactly two years earlier it
had been a nestling waiting for a swig of pigeon's milk at Lewis, Iowa. And
Robert Bedard shot a woodcock in an alder swamp near his home at Ashby, Mass.
That timberdoodle had spent the winter of 1954-55 at Grosse Tete in Iberville
all, obviously. Yet how could they know so much about their kills?
clairvoyance, but because each of the birds carried on one leg an aluminum band
with an identifying number and instructions. On the dove and woodcock bands
there was room only for "Write F & W Serv Wash USA." On the bigger
duck bands the legend was more explicit, with a saludo to Latin America:
& Wildlife Service
Write Washington, D.C., USA"
The three gunners
opened the split-ring bands with a screwdriver, flattened them out and
Scotch-taped them to letters in which they told the Fish and Wildlife Service
when and where the birds had been shot. At the Bird Banding Office in the
service's Patuxent Research Refuge near Laurel, Maryland, civil service workers
checked the files and sent the gunners word of when and where the birds had won
thousands of gunners in all 50 states ( Hawaii is included because the
peregrinating pintail flies the Pacific in both directions) will find similar
bands. Surf fishermen and beachcombers will see them on the legs of sea birds
washed up dead on the beaches. Small boys will find some on songbirds that they
pick up from the roadside, killed by cars or by flying into telephone wires.
Old ladies who find a winter finch or chickadee dead at their feeding stations
and insist on giving it "decent burial" will also see a few bands.
The greater the
proportion of these bands that are returned to the Fish and Wildlife Service
the greater will be the yield of knowledge (some of practical application to
the sportsman but all of value to the scientist) about 600 species of North
American birds. Fortunately, the FWS, ornithologists and bird lovers in general
do not depend entirely on birds shot or found dead: a big proportion of the
recoveries reported to Patuxent and checked through its filing system will be
of birds trapped, banded and released, and later retrapped and released—after
their numbers have been noted—by other banders.
By the numbers,
banding is now a big sport and it is becoming highly competitive. Except for a
few pest species, all birds are protected by international treaty and by
federal and state laws. This makes it illegal to trap a bird, even for a minute
and for a purpose as harmless and useful as banding, without a federal permit
(and in most states a state permit also). Nobody under 18 need apply, and
applicants must have at least three references from other banders or learned
societies. The Bird Banding Office now has more than 2,000 active U.S. permits
in force, and Canada has 300. The actual number of banders is about double
this, because many are "primary permittees," such as professors of
ornithology who may put a whole class to work under their supervision. The Fish
and Wildlife Service alone has about 100 employees whose duties include
banding, and some 40 states have banding programs in which scores of
conservation employees take part.