Banding Together for the Good of the Birds

From Homebase in Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kimberly Writes:  Recently a well-known birder, admired by many (including yours truly), spoke out publicly about her belief that banding and color-marking is bad for birds. Of course this is not the first time these research methods have been criticized. Humans have active minds and diverse interests and beliefs; we are always going to disagree on some things, and that’s okay. But this particular situation felt like a blow because it drew such an emotional reaction from people who, I believe, actually know better.

Whether the topic at hand involves birds or some other issue, when emotion overrules facts it is cause for concern. This is a delicate issue, and to be honest, I’m not sure I’m the right person to take this on. Truth is, I would rather just ignore it and focus on things like the upcoming Ohio Young Birders Conference and all the other positive things BSBO has going on. But part of what creates this problem is the fact that we need more and better communication. If I simply walk away from this issue, I become part of the problem. So I’m going to share some thoughts and hope they will help people come to terms with the ongoing necessity for bird research.

You know, now that I think about it, maybe I am the right person to tackle this issue. This is as much about people and emotion as it is about science. I may not be a Ph.D. ornithologist or biologist. But, I have been a volunteer bird bander for more than 12 years and have assisted with many kinds of bird research, banding, color-marking, radio telemetry, and others. But I am also a passionate birder, and I’m not afraid to say that I love birds and that I get pretty emotional about it sometimes. I’m not going to talk to you like a scientist, throwing around terms like spatial movements, site fidelity, or functional connectivity of habitats. Instead, I’m going to share my thoughts about the merits of research in my own plain language.

I have been blessed as a woman and as a birder. I am married to the love of my life and together we have traveled the world to study birds. I have been moved in ways I could never have imagined by our experiences with birds of every size, shape, and color. Birds inspire our emotions. There is a strong visceral response to birds that can be powerful enough to change the course of peoples’ lives. I know. It happened to me.

On a trip to the Antarctic, I knelt on the damp, spongy soil of South Georgia Island and wept as a yearling King Penguin waddled up within a few feet to investigate this strange creature that had suddenly arrived in his land. I felt a surge of overwhelming joy at my first glimpse of parrots in the wild – a flock of Maroon-fronted Parrots - gliding against the backdrop of a lush green mountainside in Mexico.

And I have been driven to my knees in astonishment at the sight of a Sword-billed Hummingbird in Ecuador. But some of the most amazing moments I have experienced with birds have had nothing to do with observations. They had to do with discoveries about the lives of birds, and these discoveries came through research.

Research is about learning. About gaining a greater understanding of what birds do, how and why they do it, and monitoring population trends. The more we know, the more insight we gain, the better our chances of helping birds. When something goes amiss on the wintering grounds or the breeding grounds, banding stations will be among the first to sound the alarm call. And let’s face it: some of this information is more inspiring, more fascinating, more moving, than any mere sighting could be. For example…

Think Northern Cardinals don't migrate? Think again.

On June 1st, 2009, BSBO banded a female Northern Cardinal at the Navarre Marsh Banding Station near Oak Harbor, Ohio. Ten months later, on April 28th, 2010, BSBO volunteer bander Julie West recaptured the same bird at her banding station at Shaker Lakes Nature Center, in Shaker Lakes, Ohio, 94 miles away!

At 60 years old, Wisdom, a Laysan Albatross, is the oldest wild bird known in the U.S.
Photo courtesy of USGS
First recorded in 1956 as she incubated an egg, Wisdom was wandering the Pacific when the first human was launched into space, when the Berlin Wall came down, and when the Black Swamp Bird Observatory was founded.  Her most recent, and perhaps most impressive accomplishment, was surviving the tsunami that hit Midway Island after the massive 2011 earthquake struck Japan. How do we know that Wisdom is 60 years old? Because Wisdom is wearing a band.

Blackpoll Warblers make a mind-boggling journey each fall in route to their wintering grounds. These tiny birds, weighing less than an ounce when they’re all fattened up and ready to go, will make an 80 hour, nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean to reach their wintering grounds in South America.  This fall, BSBO is smack-daddy in the middle of Blackpoll Warbler migration. We have banded a record number so far, and the season isn’t over. More importantly, we have recaptured seven Blackpolls banded in years past, including one that was banded as an adult in 2006. This tells us that for at least six years this tiny bird has been making a journey that we can scarcely even imagine. Also remarkable is the fact that the bird was recaptured within a few hundred feet of where it was originally netted in 2006. There are no magic optics that could tell us something as extraordinary as that. No expert observer could have recognized this bird as an individual and documented just how critical this habitat has been to this bird and millions of others just like it. Now, thanks to a tiny, virtually weightless band of aluminum, we know this to be fact.

There are still so many questions about birds and many ways to gather this data. Yes, we can (and do) stand on the edge of a flooded field observing shorebirds every day, for the same length of time, from the same location, and count the number of birds we see, documenting their presence / absence. But when that flock of 500 Dunlin takes flight and whirls out of sight, where do they go? Why do they move from one habitat to another? How long do they stay? What is their energetic condition (in other words, how much fat do they have) when they get there?  How much fat do they need before they leave our area to continue their migration? How long does it take them to build up these reserves? These are questions no binocular on the market can answer. We’ve got to have the bird in hand to get at these details, and we need these details to garner support for habitat conservation, and to assist with managing these habitats.

With the battle for funding hitting everyone hard, we cannot simply say that there are “a lot” of birds in this area; that we need to draw down more of these diked impoundments because there are “a lot” of shorebirds depending on these mudflats during migration. Anecdotal observations will not cut it. We need documentation of these needs. We need science.

In a similar vein, if I walk into our congresswoman’s office and tell her that there are “a lot of birds” in this region, or that “a lot of birders” are visiting the area and spending “a lot of money,” how far do you think I’ll get in convincing her that conserving bird habitat is important? But when I present more than 500,000 banding records—more than 10,000 from last spring alone—it is irrefutable evidence.
When I can show her the results of our 2011 Biggest Week In American Birding post-event economic impact study, indicating that birders spent approximately 29 million dollars in her district, then I have more than just her attention. Now I have her district’s best interests on the table.

Learning is something that I love, and I especially love learning about birds. When we stop the learning process at the point where we can pin a name on a bird, then we do a great disservice to ourselves and to the birds. If we approached our interactions with humans in the same manner, we wouldn’t be much of a society, would we? We fall in love as we get to know something, and at BSBO we are as much about helping people fall in love with birds as we are about answering research questions. In fact, we use those detailed answers learned through scientific studies to help build that initial curiosity about birds into a passion. And it works. I’ve seen it happen, over...

and over...

and over.

It’s undeniable.

Bird banding is an invaluable tool for learning and for inspiring people to care more deeply about birds. As a teacher, as a bander, as a dedicated bird conservationist, I hope no one—especially those with big voices in the birding community—ever tries to take this powerful learning and teaching tool away from us.

We live in an age where with the click of a mouse, we can find a staggering amount of information on just about everything. The one answer that isn’t out there is the solution to these human dilemmas. Perhaps the best answer lies within us. Is it impossible to think that we could learn to respect one another, in spite of our differences, and do our best to achieve the highest level of understanding that we possibly can - before we send our opinions out into the ether? With bird conservation as our common ground, surely we can arrive at some level of compromise. When thousands of intelligent people who love birds enough to dedicate their lives to bird conservation all agree that research is necessary and that banding is safe, perhaps it is not out of the question to ask for a measure of faith and trust. Perhaps we can all work together for the good of the birds and all that they add to our quality of life.


  1. This discussion comes up as it relates to other animals also. At YNP, we frequently hear that the mammals, especially wolves, should not be collared. But without the incredible and valuable data acquired by this work, wolves would be even more endangered than they are now.

    So yeah, we have to band and collar and study these critters. We would not be good stewards without good data.

  2. Great post Kimberly...I will link to it from my blog. While I think some banding that goes on is not really necessary and can cause a lot of stress to birds, it is without a doubt a crucial tool in bird research. Also, I think a very recent study came out demonstrating that the rate of injury and mortality to birds during the banding process is remarkably low...I will post a link here if I can find it.

  3. ps that St George Island picture is epic!!!

  4. It's a good thing this post was awesome because I think I just missed one of the best endings ever of a World Series game! Cool photos too!

  5. I thoroughly enjoyed this post and couldn't agree more.
    We volunteer at a banding station here in Ontario when we can and the data these birds can provide is important to their future welfare.
    I love hearing the stories of re-traps from years ago and many, many miles. Migration is truly a natural wonder of the world.

    From one passionate woman birder to another, thank you.

  6. I don't know the birder who sparked your response, but I'd be very surprised if their call to re-examine banding came from a place of not understanding the critical importance of the data being gathered.

    As a novice birder, I've already seen distressing examples of geese with overly tight neck bands, smaller birds with too tight leg bands, and birds with too many bands altogether. I imagine you have to have seen way more than I.

    Understanding the value of data gathering in conservation efforts and advocacy can and should be accompanied by compassion and a very high standard of performance for the practices that allow the data-gathering to happen.

    There is nothing wrong and everything right about not remaining complacent about the data-gathering practices currently in place. Wanting to lessen the impact of banding/collaring/etc. on individual animals increases the quality of the data returned and has nothing to do with not understanding that there are always trade-offs and imperfect decisions to be made in approaches.

  7. Amen to that! Well said Kimberly.

  8. Many thousands of people feel as passionately about birds and the wonder of nature; but very few can express that love and passion as Kim Kaufmann. Birds Rock! But BSBO helps them roll.

  9. Kimmay, we will ALWAYS love you and support your work!
    This research is so important on so many levels as you've stated. Thanks!

  10. Several years ago my then teenage kids and I went down to Humboldt Co. CA to visit my good friends David Fix and Jude Power. There were two young female HSU students doing some banding along Jacoby Creek -- just upstream from the famous "Red House" immortalized in "Kingbird Highway."

    My older daughter Lucy, who is not necessarily that into birding, was totally enamored by the data collection associated with banding. She is currently a junior at the University of Oregon, majoring in biology.

    I was exposed to banding by several permitted members of the South Bend (Indiana) Audubon Society as kid back in the late 1960's. There is so much that can be learned and great inspiration that comes from banding experiences. Shawneen and I are both hopeful of finding time to volunteer at a banding station.

    P.S. I'm sure you know, but sadly the Red House is no longer extant.

  11. Kim, your post brought me to tears! I applaud you for writing such a moving an informative post.


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