Every year, researchers place identification bands on some 1.2 million birds throughout North America, and more than 87,000 encounter reports are made by people who discover the bands or other markers on living or dead specimens.
The North American Bird Banding Program is the largest program of its kind in the world. It provides useful information about the range, migration routes, breeding grounds and overall health of birds, and it’s all orchestrated by a staff of 16 United States Geological Survey (USGS) staff members working at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center’s Bird Banding Laboratory (BBL), in Laurel.
Aside from its USGS duties, the BBL staff also administers the Canadian Wildlife Service’s banding program.
“We assign the colors and codes so that there’s no overlap and no confusion, and we coordinate every aspect of the programs,” said Bird Banding Laboratory Chief Bruce Peterjohn.
On any given day, that includes issuing permits to banders in the U.S., filling orders for bands and auxiliary markers, collecting data from toll-free telephone and Internet reporting, maintaining the Bandit database of recapture records and providing raw data to academic, governmental or other authorized users.
With 25 standard-sized aluminum bands and five specially-sized bands, the laboratory can accommodate the smallest hummingbird, as well as the largest trumpeter swan, and also has developed riveted bands that can’t be removed by the strong beaks of eagles.
Its auxiliary markers include neckbands and collars for geese and swans, nasal markers for ducks, wing and web tags, tail streamers, leg flags and feather dyes, as well as transmitters and other electronic devices.
Established in 1920, just two years after ratification of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act with the United Kingdom, the USGS BBL has worked closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service to develop regulations for the capture, handling, banding and marking of birds.
Over the years, the program has uncovered many of the deepest secrets of bird migration and breeding locations.
In 1944, in fact, thanks to the return of bands from Peru, the U.S. Department of the Interior was finally able to announce the discovery of the chimney swift’s winter home in that country as “one of the most important ornithological discoveries in the last two decades.” It was the only remaining North American bird whose wintering grounds had not previously been charted.
“Knowing the wintering grounds, breeding areas and migration routes is very important for protecting threatened species,” said USGS Wildlife Biologist Danny Bystrak, who issues permits and processes data requests. “When states or the federal government decide to set aside land for protection, we can help by pointing to our data and suggesting where it would make the most sense to create those sanctuaries or management areas.”
The BBL shares data with the various state fish and game agencies, which use the information for conservation purposes and to help determine game bird hunting seasons and bag limits.
“We also deal with the Flyway Councils and biologists that keep track of populations and decide how many birds of any given type they need to band to get the necessary data for specific research purposes,” Bystrack said.
It’s not just bird populations that can benefit from the banding program, but the human population as well.
It has long been known that birds can act as vectors for diseases that can be transmitted to humans by transporting diseases from one geographically isolated area to another.
“There are some documented records of Central American ticks that have been transported here by birds,” Peterjohn said. “They feed on the bird’s blood until they’re ready to drop off, and wind up here during the migration season.”
For that reason, researchers suspect that birds have played a role in the spread of tick-borne Lyme disease.
“The spread of West Nile Disease in the human population has been associated, to some degree, with birds that have been infected by mosquitos,” he said. “Avian influenza, which can also be transmitted to humans, is becoming a bigger issue here, although it hasn’t reached the same level of concern that we’ve seen in Asia.”
Academic researchers are using the banding program in their studies of mallards, which seem to be immune to avian influenza, and are using banding data to learn a lot more about birds as disease vectors in general, Peterjohn said.
High Tech Avionics
In the modern wireless communications age, the USGS is not only benefitting from an increase in encounter reporting, but is also beginning to upgrade the ways in which data can be acquired.
“We’re now using tiny radios and satellite transmitters that can determine altitude, flight speed, direction and other information, depending on the sensors on the device,” Peterjohn said.
Satellite transmitters aren’t going to become ubiquitous anytime soon, though, as they still cost several thousand dollars per unit and require a subscription costing several hundred dollars per month just to collect the data from Argos, the French pioneer satellite system that
provides wildlife tracking capabilities around the world.
In any case, the transmitters are becoming smaller and more useful.
“When they weighed 6 ounces, the golden eagle was the only bird we could put a transmitter on,” Bystrak said. “Now they’re down to less than a gram and can actually be used with birds as small as phoebes.”
“What we’ve been able to learn through this program over the years is nothing short of amazing,” Peterjohn said. “We now know that the bar-tailed godwit is capable of flying nonstop from western Alaska to New Zealand, covering 7,000-to-8,000 miles in nine days.”
Equally impressive, said Bystrak, was University of California Berkeley researcher Henry Streby’s discovery from BBL data that the threatened golden-winged warbler can sense when approaching cold fronts will intersect with its migration route and make rapid course detours to avoid meeting up with bad weather.
“This program is constantly rewriting our knowledge of what birds are capable of,” Peterjohn said. “It’s also opening our eyes to better ways to protect them.”