A bird in the hand
Volunteer bird banders brave angry birds for science
Saturday, Jun 21, 2014 06:00 am
High up a poplar tree near Sherwood Park, Rick Morse is waiting to get mauled.
He’s here to stage a kidnapping of sorts. Above him in a tangled nest of branches sit four baby northern goshawks – white balls of fluff the size of cantaloupes, each less than 21 days old.
Somewhere nearby are their parents, who will no doubt hear the “eek eek eek!” calls of their kids if they’re in range. If the parents do hear, Morse predicts they’ll come screaming to the rescue and do their best to slash him to ribbons.
“They have no fear, man,” says Morse, who lives in St. Albert.
Northern goshawks are the biggest forest-dwelling hawks in Alberta, and will attack any and all creatures – even bears – that approach their nests. Just a few weeks ago, one furious female tore a huge hole in the thick leather coat Morse wears for protection.
“She hit me on the head six times.”
Other encounters have left him a bloody mess, which is why he now wears a motorcycle helmet with face and neck shields while doing this.
He’s almost disappointed when he grabs the chicks without incident. The parents seem to be out hunting. He likes getting attacked, he says.
“The more aggressive the bird, the better the chances of survival for that bird.”
Morse is a licensed bird-bander – one of the hundreds of volunteers who hook tiny metal bands to wild birds for scientific purposes in Canada every year, sometimes getting maimed in the process.
“I look at it as my extreme sport,” Morse says.
For the love of birds
Morse has been banding birds for about 25 years, having gotten his start as a volunteer with the Strathcona Raptor Shelter where he met master bander Hardy Pletz.
“I thought it would be more fun to play around with healthy birds,” he says, so he trained with Pletz for six years and got his licence.
A travelling salesman, Morse says he finds bird-banding is a great way to get outdoors and out of the car. He bands about 500 birds a year and goes out to do it most weeks.
His worst injury so far happened years ago when he was out banding barred owls with a friend who insisted the owls weren’t a threat.
“Came in and hit me with all eight talons both sides of my neck, twice,” he says of the owl.
The result? Sixteen bloody, dripping holes, a gory picture and a valuable lesson for the kids: “You’ve gotta be careful when you’re around owl nests!”
Over by Beaverhill Lake, bird-bander Amélie Roberto-Charron extracts a beautiful rose-breasted grosbeak from a net. The bird repeatedly chomps her fingers with its massive bill as she measures its wingspan, affixes a numbered aluminium band onto its leg, and lets it go.
“Most extractions don’t take very long unless you’re being bit really hard,” she jokes.
Roberto-Charron is the executive director of the Beaverhill Bird Observatory near Tofield, southeast of Edmonton. The observatory – a cabin in the midst of a large aspen forest – is one of about 25 permanent monitoring stations across Canada that track migrating birds using bird bands.
Roberto-Charron says she got interested in bird-banding after she was forced to take a zoology class in university. She got engrossed in the wonders of birds and started volunteering at the observatory.
Now, she spends her days catching and banding birds, as well as teaching visitors about them.
“You get (a bird) in hand and show it to someone, and you can show them how much more it was than they originally thought.”
Bird banding is the practice of putting markers on a bird so that it can be identified later. It dates back to at least the 1500s.
Nowadays, bird banding is regulated by Environment Canada’s Bird Banding Office and the U.S. Bird Banding Laboratory. The two organizations manage a huge database of every bird banded and recovered dead or alive in North America, and license all bird-banders.
Dick Cannings, spokesperson for Bird Studies Canada, says bird banding is one of the best ways we have of monitoring bird populations, which are great indicators of environmental health.
“If certain groups of birds are in decline, we know there’s something going wrong.”
You need extensive knowledge of bird handling, identification and years of training before you can get a licence to band birds, Cannings says.
“The important thing is the bird’s health and safety,” he says.
Bird bands each have a unique eight-digit number on them that lets researchers track a bird throughout its life, Cannings explains. By noting the age, gender, condition and location of banded birds, researchers can learn much about their movements, numbers and longevity for conservation purposes.
“Pretty much all we know about bird migration is because of banding.”
A bird keeps its band for life, Roberto-Charron says. Bird legs actually shrink with age, so there’s no risk of them outgrowing the bands.
How to band a bird
To get a band on a bird, you first have to catch it.
That’s simple for some cavity nesters like saw-whet owls – you build a nest box, wait for birds, reach in and grab them.
For songbirds, Roberto-Charron strings a number of near-invisible mesh nets around Beaverhill Lake. The nets are designed so that birds hit the net and fall into a slack pocket in it without getting entangled.
“It can be really dangerous for birds if you leave them in the nets too long,” she continues, so she and her team check the nets every 30 minutes.
Captured birds are put into sacks to calm them during transport to the cabin. Once there, Roberto-Charron and her team gently unfold the bird from the bag, examine it, band it and release it through a hole in the cabin’s wall. The irritated birds often try to bite and scratch them in the process.
Raptor banding is a little more complex.
For adults, Morse says he usually drives country roads, scanning powerlines and fenceposts for red-tailed hawks, kestrels and the like. When he spots one, he stops his truck, drops a trap out the window, backs up and waits.
The trap is a domed metal cage called a bal-chatri, he explains. A live mouse inside the cage lures in the hungry bird, whose talons are then caught in wire loops atop the cage.
A bander can then grab the bird and apply the band. The bird is released and the presumably relieved mouse retrieved. Provided the bird takes the bait quickly, the whole process can take less than five minutes.
For babies, Morse checks out old nest sites early in the spring and watches for signs of activity. Many birds, especially owls, will use the same sites year after year.
Once he spots activity, he monitors the site to determine when to intervene. Too soon, and the parents might abandon their eggs.
Morse uses climbing spurs and a belt to get up to most nests. Once there, he puts the babies in a sack and lowers them to the ground for his partners to band. He then hauls them back up to return them, usually with some fresh food for their trouble.
Just 10 per cent of game birds and less than one per cent of songbirds are ever recovered after banding, reports Environment Canada.
Each recovery gets logged by Environment Canada, which also tells the original bander where and when their bird is found.
Most recoveries happen when a bird is found dead, Morse says. Still, he’s had a few that show up consistently.
“I catch a lot of my own hawks that I’ve banded 10 or 12 years ago,” he says, and he’s caught one snowy owl by Morinville five years in a row near the exact same spot.
“It’s great to realize that this bird has survived that amount of time.”