Saturday, September 18, 2010

Idaho Bird Observatory: Part One - Song Bird Banding

The Idaho Bird Observatory "Banding Shack" on top of Lucky Peak
I made my third trip up the mountain overlooking east Boise to visit the Idaho Bird Observatory.  I went with the purpose of documenting the bird capture and banding process for my own learning and to share it with others.  I am filled with amazement each time I go.  The staff and volunteers there are always fun to be with and are great at sharing fascinating knowledge.  The location of the IBO on top of Lucky Peak is really ideal.  It is a naturally occurring migrant funnel into the Treasure Valley and the concentration of bird species there is impressive.  I invite everyone in Idaho and traveling through to put a visit to the IBO on the top of their must-see list.  I've taken my kids before and they absolutely loved it!

For those that enjoy birds and bird science, please consider making a donation to the Idaho Bird Observatory to further their work.  Donations can be made online by visiting their website here.  Just so readers know, the IBO folks didn't give me a special invitation to visit, nor did they request that I solicit donations in their behalf.  I just really enjoy what they do and love the science behind it.  Most of the staff are volunteers who are there for the experience.  They live in primitive campsites starting in the blazing hot summer until the frigid cold snows them off the mountain.  If life circumstances were different, I'd probably live up their with them and donate tons of cash to fund their research.  It is like Disneyland for people who love birds!

Jack uses his bird whisper skills as he gently extracts a bird from the mist net.  I believe they have ten mist nets up which are spread out over a few sloped acres among the brush and trees.  Every half hour, for four to five hours beginning at sunrise, the team splits up to retrieve birds from the nets.
Here Jack is lowering the top part of the net to retrieve a bird.  See all the bags clipped to his shirt?  That is the safest way to transport the birds from the nets to the banding shack and to stay hands free to extract other birds.  The clips are labeled with the net number as well as the height level on the net.  This data is also tracked.
Birds in the bags, all queued up for processing.  The IBO staff works hard and fast to reduce the amount of stress on the birds.  This morning was particularly productive with a high volume of captures.  It took a lot of focus to be efficient and relay all those numbers to the recorders.  I didn't help much with all of my distracting questions, comments, and photo-taking.
Heidi and Jay applying bands to a pair of birds.  There are several band sizes which they select according to the species.
Several measurements are taken, like wing length and tail feather length.
The birds are weighed by being placed into the appropriate size tube.
Feathers are observed looking for key indicators for the age and gender of the bird.  They also check for parasites.  The length of certain feathers or their color can tell these experts a lot.  That Gatorade is not a free product placement ad, nor is it for the IBO staff to drink.  Its for stressed out birds to rehydrate!  Perhaps Gatorade would like to sponsor the IBO?!
Banders blow on the stomachs of the birds to check for muscle content.  See the dark pink?  Their skin is almost transparent, so what you are seeing is muscle.
They blow on the birds to check fat content too.  See that yellowish stuff?  That's body fat.  Body fat is very important for bird health, especially for those birds that are migrating.
They also blow on the skull to help age the bird.  Hatch-year birds only have one layer of skull and its somewhat translucent.  Older birds have white dots on their skull which shows where one layer of bone attaches to the other.
Here is a bird skull.  That triangle area is where they check for skull ossification which helps to age the bird.
Bird banders often refer to the "Pyle Guide" to learn the nuances of bird gender and age identification.  It is stunning how much these IBO staff members know off the top of the heads, which shows why field work is so important in the study of wildlife biology.  Here Heidi confirms a discussion she and Jay were having about the gender of Red-breasted Nuthatches.  The rule of thumb is that a male has shiny black on the head, where the female has a duller black.  The Pyle guide refers to contrasting shades of black on the head compared to the back to distinguish gender.
The IBO staff religiously records all of the measurements along with the band number.  This information is entered into a searchable database.  When birds are recaptured here at the IBO or somewhere else in the world, this data can be retrieved and compared.  Recaptures are very exciting and teach us all kinds of cool things.
Next up...Hawkwatch and Hawk Trapping/Banding photos from the Idaho Bird Observatory.  Please check back in a day or two!

For more great blog posts about the Idaho Bird Observatory, please check out the Aspiring Ecologist who recently finished working at the IBO for a time.  Also visit Rob's Idaho Perspective.  He too has worked at the IBO.


  1. Whoa, I've always wondered how banding works. You've enlightened me here.
    What a bunch of (beautiful) work.
    Gatorade for birds, huh?
    Who would've thought :)
    That would be a good promotion for Gatorade (are you guys listening?!)

    Re Garganey ducks: Would love to send some over, but we are now in Kuwait, no such luck here either ;)

  2. I have a friend who does this in our area. Unfortunately it's usually far too hot & humid by that time of year, but I still hope to buckle down and get out there ONE of these days!

  3. That's a very interesting discussion of bird banding. People like that do a great job in adding to our knowledge of birds. I sometimes see banded/flagged birds (and report them) but it would be great to have the opportunity to work with a team that does the banding.

  4. Thanks for making me interested in something I had never really thought about before.

  5. Very interesting photos about bird-banding. And thank you for your dedication in helping document bird populations in your area.

  6. I have watched Jay work birds several times. I will never forget the time he taught my 2 year old grandaughter how to release a bird. What a gentleman.

  7. Great post! I really miss banding birds. Your post brought on a wave of nostalgia.

  8.'ve documented it so well. I loved reading everything...

  9. Stellar post Robert! Great information and the photos are awesome. I have never been to a banding station myself but it is now on my to do list for sure!

    Obviously we owe a great deal to these biologists and volunteers for the bird knowledge we enjoy today.

  10. A very intersting post. With much knowledge in handling birds. I will link to this post on my own blog. :)

    Welcome to visit my swedish birdblog even if it is not as advanced as yours.

  11. This is a great post, you've documented your visit and the work of the banders well! I was very lucky to be able to volunteer at a local banding station this summer. I learned so much but there is still SO MUCH MORE to learn! :) It's also interesting to me now to see how other stations do things differently.