ROGERS –Hummingbirds and swallows might migrate thousands of miles in a year. Other birds stick closer to home. Tiny metal bands on the legs of birds large and small help wildlife professionals track their travels.
Bird banding by skilled and trained experts was part of the Wonders of Winter Wildlife Event held on a chilly Saturday in January at Hobbs State Park-Conservation Area east of Rogers.
To collect songbirds, bird banders set up two nearly invisible nets close to bird feeders near the park’s visitor center. Mist nets, they’re called. Birds flew into the fine mesh and were delicately taken from the net by expert handlers, which included Sue Gustafson of Bella Vista, a retired wildlife biologist.
Each bird is placed in a cloth sack and carried a short distance to an outdoor table. One of the trained banders, Mitchell Pruitt of Fayetteville, used special pliers to crimp a feather-weight aluminum band with a number on each bird. The bands are the size of a fingernail sliver and are harmless to the songbirds, Pruitt assured. They don’t hinder a bird’s flight at all, he said. Larger birds get larger bands.
Before they were released to fly away, a few were taken to a visitor center classroom where Butch Tetzlaff with The Bluebird Shed retail store in Bella Vista gave a talk about birds and their habits.
Tetzlaff carefully cradled Carolina chickadees, red-breasted nuthatches and other birds in his palm. Slowly he walked down an aisle to let youngsters feel the bird’s head and body feathers.
“Banding birds is how we track them over time and space,” Tetzlaff told his captive audience of about 50. “It’s been taking place for about 100 years.”
Bird banding uniquely marks individual birds so they can be recognized if they are seen again. It allows scientists and other interested parties to track individual birds over time, according to the National Audubon Society.
After Tetzlaff showed a bird for about three minutes, another trained bander took it outdoors and set it free.
Outside at the banding table, Pruitt and his helper, Christian Machen, weighed and measured each bird and recorded the data. Pruitt is a doctoral student at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, and Machen is an undergraduate.
Mitchell noted the recovery rate of banded birds is low. Much of the time a banded bird isn’t recovered unless it’s dead. “But the data is valuable over the long term,” he said.
Long term meaning decades of banding data.
Jen Mortensen teaches ornithology at the university and was part of the bird banding team. She watched as newly banded songbirds flew quickly away to disappear in the surrounding forest.
“If we capture the bird again, we know who it is, and, if other people who catch and band birds catch it, they know who it is. They put their information into a national data base, and that way we can get a picture of where birds go, how long they live, all sorts of things like that,” she said.