St. Albert retirees Martine Dumont and Normand Legault spoke with The Gazette this month about their ongoing quest to build the Devonian Parklands Banding Station in Bunchberry Meadows southwest of Edmonton.
The station, once operational, will let volunteers trap and affix metal ID bands to birds as part of an international campaign to study bird health.
Legault said he and his wife Dumont were longtime birdwatchers who got into bird-banding a few years ago through the Beaverhill Bird Observatory east of Tofield. They learned that the observatory was affiliated with the Institute for Bird Populations, which sought to establish a continent-wide network of bird-banding stations, and that the stations at Beaverhill Lake were some of the only ones in central Alberta.
“We humans need nature to survive,” Legault said, and birds were important indicators of nature’s health.
They’re also in decline worldwide, Dumont added — a 2019 study in Science found that Canadian and U.S. bird populations had shrunk about 30 per cent since 1970, with the bulk of these missing birds being small songbirds such as sparrows and red-winged blackbirds.
“We think it’s important to know why that’s happening," Dumont said.
Dumont and Legault started a group called Banding Together to Save Birds to build a new bird-banding station in the Edmonton region under the institute’s Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship (MAPS) program. The group launched a GoFundMe page to support the station in March, with the aim to raise $7,000 to buy the specialized nets needed for the station.
Dumont said the group partnered with the Edmonton and Area Land Trust to build the station in Bunchberry Meadows — a natural area southeast of Edmonton that was close to volunteers and an excellent bird breeding ground. (Big Lake was too close to people to meet the institute’s standards, she explained.)
Dumont said the group got clearance from the federal government to start work on the station Aug. 4 and had done some initial brush-clearing. The station itself will not involve permanent structures. Instead, volunteers will set up nets in Bunchberry every 10 days during the spring and summer for about six hours and band, evaluate, and release any birds they catch. Information collected will be sent to the institute for use in bird research.
Dave Ealey, a certified bird-bander associated with the Banding Together group, said he expects to see a wide variety of birds at Bunchberry Meadows due to its varied breeding habitat, including chickadees, vireos, yellow warblers, and song, savanna, and clay-coloured sparrows.
“The safety of the birds is paramount,” he added, and banders will follow strict protocols to protect bird health.
Established in1989, MAPS is one of the longest-running research projects of its kind and currently involves some 350 stations in North America, said MAPS co-ordinator Danielle Kaschube.
Kaschube said bird-banding assigns unique ID tags to birds so scientists can tell them apart, allowing them to track survival and reproduction rates, age distribution, and overall health. Researchers have used MAPS data to publish hundreds of studies on North American birds, particularly on the effects of habitat loss and climate change. New stations such as the one at Bunchberry, will result in more data and more accurate results.
While you need special training to do it, Kaschube said bird-banding is something anyone can do.
“Once you have a bird in your hand, you always want to go back,” she said.
“They’re just astounding creatures. This thing that weighs the same amount as a quarter can fly all the way to South America and back to the exact same spot it was last year.”
You get a sense of wonderment as you hold one of these birds and realize that it has probably travelled thousands of kilometres, Dumont and Legault said.
“It makes you realize that we’re part of a bigger scheme,” Legault said.
Legault and Dumont said they hope to have the station operational by next June and to keep it running for at least five years.
Questions on the station should go to [email protected]. The GoFundMe page is at bit.ly/3Al1Wc9.