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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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