A Bird In Hand

By Eilene Lyon

My usual MO when it comes to wildlife is “observe, don’t touch.” After all, we make life difficult enough for critters as it is. No need to add to their stress.

Sometimes, though, a compelling conservation reason negates the usual policy. Based on long-term surveys, e.g. the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, it’s clear that bird populations have seen sharp declines over the past century.

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The black-capped chickadee is a tiny, but hardy year-round resident.

We know, certainly, that habitat loss is a major factor in wildlife numbers dropping. There may be other impacts or changes going on that require more data to comprehend and combat. For the past six years, Durango has been participating in the Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship (MAPS) program. I’ve been helping with this bird-banding project for five of those years.

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Measuring tail feathers (retrices) of a female Bullock’s oriole is one of the indignities the birds are subjected to. Note the new “bling” on her right leg. Each year we recapture some banded birds and this helps us track them over time and space.
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The indignant oriole gives the handler the evil eye and has her say.

MAPS began in 1989 as a collaboration between governmental and non-governmental organizations. Banding stations have been established continent-wide in most states and Canadian provinces. The birds are captured in mist nets, banded, and information on species, sex, size, reproductive state, age, and health are collected. Then the birds are released.

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Usually birds will fly off immediately – some escape even before we collect all our data. This flycatcher isn’t in a big hurry.
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This yellow warbler was also somewhat hesitant. “What just happened??!!”

To-date, these data have contributed to 100 peer-reviewed scientific articles that help us answer the following questions:1

  • “What factors drive avian population declines?
  • Where are problems most acute, on the breeding or non-breeding grounds?
  • What drives differences in trends between particular regions or habitats?
  • What is the relationship between population change and weather, climate, or habitat loss?
  • What can we do to reverse declines?”

In Durango, the MAPS program is run by Lynn Wickersham of Animas Biological Studies, and is funded jointly by the city and Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Aside from Lynn, all the participant banders are volunteers.

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Lynn Wickersham with a red-naped sapsucker.

I first met Lynn, a professional ornithologist, when I helped with the Colorado Breeding Bird Atlas II project. My participation began with several seasons of field observations on two high-altitude blocks. Each block is effectively one-sixth of a USGS 7.5-minute topographic quad.

The entire state of Colorado was divided up into these blocks and volunteers did their best to find and record as many breeding birds as possible over a six-year period. This project replicated an earlier one from several decades ago, and resulted in a published hardcover book for all the species found breeding in the state. (I contributed ten peer-reviewed species accounts.)

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A colorful house finch.

Not only is Lynn highly competent when working with birds, she is also a fabulous teacher! Even if someone has absolutely no experience, she is welcoming and encouraging. She never tires of answering the same questions – over and over and over. Even school-age kids can take part. One of our most competent bird handlers started when he was 11 or 12 (he’ll be a high school senior this fall).

For volunteers, the thrill of holding these beautiful little wonders is the best part. (We speculate that the birds get together to talk about their “alien abduction” experiences.) It doesn’t hurt that Lynn frequently brings us some home-baked treats. Yum.

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The banding station with our tools, bands, reference books, essential morning beverages (we start before sunrise), bags for holding birds, etc. Lynn prepares to weigh a woodpecker by placing it headfirst into a tube.
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We check our ten nets every half hour. If we get a busy round , some birds wait to be processed in hanging cloth bags.

After five years banding many birds, I feel like I’m only just now getting competent at collecting all the data. But that’s not due to any lack of instruction from our fearless leader. It can be particularly difficult to see the subtle clues that help determine a bird’s age.

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Feather tracts on the wings are useful for aging a bird. This cordilleran flycatcher has relatively fresh and uniform feathers.
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The wing of this cedar waxwing shows its trademark red, waxy tips.
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Processing birds is not necessarily painless for the volunteers. While woodpeckers might seems dangerous, it can be little guys like this chickadee inflicting serious bites. Grosbeaks are to be handled with caution!

The first experience I had observing a bird-banding station was on Grand Isle, Louisiana. The bird species they caught there were migrating neo-tropicals, so I got to observe species we don’t see much (or ever) in Colorado. However, the process intrigued me and when the opportunity came up here at home, I jumped at the chance.

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Bander recording data for a white-eyed vireo at the banding station on Grand Isle, Louisiana in 2012.

You don’t need to be a trained biologist to participate. Find out if there’s a MAPS station near you by clicking on the reference below. If you’re interestied in reading the report Lynn prepared for the first five years at our Durango station, you can find it here.

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Mourning dove captured (and released) at the Oxbow Park and Preserve, Durango, Colorado.

Feature image: Lazuli bunting at the Oxbow Park and Preserve MAPS station in Durango, Colorado (L. Wickersham)

Other photos: the good ones by Lynn Wickersham, the so-so ones by Eilene Lyon

36 thoughts on “A Bird In Hand

Add yours

  1. Looks like a great project to be involved with. Lots of positives ….. stimulating, eco supportive, outdoors, friendships ….. And in Durango, a placed we loved on our USA Rail Tour!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. What colors!

    I love how you can see the personalities of the birds in their respective pics. The Oriole who was giving a piece of her mind, the biter (yikes) and the curious free spirits such as the flycatcher.

    Great stuff, Eilene.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Wonderful program and this was very informative. I didn’t know you could use wings to help identify age. I looked at the map of MAPS. The closest station to us is just across the Alberta border, about a 2 hour drive.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Beautiful birds and a worthwhile project! I’d love the chance to handle some, even at the risk of being bitten, though I don’t know why we do all have the urge to touch wild things. Obviously I usually resist that urge, but if I find a toad in the road, I will use it as an excuse to move them back into the safety of the grass – I have a total soft spot for toads.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Fascinating. I’m glad you answered my most pressing question: do these wild birds inflict harm on the people who hold them? Apparently yes. And you know what? I don’t blame those birds at all. There you are one day flying around the forest and then suddenly some big creature grabs you and starts fussing with your nether regions and plopping jewelry on your leg. I’d peck, too.

    Liked by 2 people

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