Birds bagged, measured,
tagged and released
By Mike Lauterborn
(Posted to Fairfield.Patch.com 5/14)
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.
Fairfield, CT – It was the perfect time to be bagging birds. Cloudy, cool and early enough that the birds would be focused on finding breakfast and not on the mesh nets all around the property set there to capture them.
All the flap was around “International Migratory Bird Day” being celebrated Saturday morning at the Birdcraft Museum and Sanctuary, 314 Unquowa Road. The event marked the peak period during which insect-eating birds return to the area from their tropical retreats and are temporarily captured, catalogued, banded and released.
Master Bander Judy Richardson, who has been leading the banding at the Birdcraft since 1988, was like a wide-eyed kid, excitedly walking the 6.5 acre sanctuary to unfurl some seventeen 8’H x 40’W fine mesh nets along most of the trails and encircling the pond. While Richardson is a long-time veteran, bird monitoring at Birdcraft began in the 1970s.
The morning was cloudy and overcast, which Richardson said was ideal in terms of capturing birds. “The nets are almost invisible, and they’ve been through a long night and are hungry,” she said.
Richardson said they began monitoring the migratory birds’ return since April 1 and will wrap up around Memorial Day, but that this period now is the peak time when most return. “These birds, like the Wood Thrush, can’t live here in the winter,” she said. “We’re essentially welcoming them back from places like Central and South America. The birds follow the coast and this is not far from it. As they’re flying over Fairfield, they see this green patch, like a mini Central Park, amid an otherwise developed area. The Sanctuary is a perfect stopping place.”
Richardson explained that bird monitoring is done as they are a tremendous indicator of the condition of the environment. “If things aren’t going well for them, things are not going to go well for us,” she said.
The nets stay up from about 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. The birds essentially fly into and get tangled in them, flap a little then wait. The nets are patrolled by a team of about seven banders, who check them hourly or more often. They carefully remove the birds and place them into cotton bags, which are warm and comforting. They are then brought inside to a banding lab to be processed. The nets are never put up in the rain as the birds’ feathers would get wet and their health might be compromised.
“It’s such a pleasure to see these birds arrive knowing they’ve traveled thousands of miles to get here,” said Richardson, as she removed a Common Yellowthroat from a net. “This one’s coming from South America and nests in the Sanctuary. It makes a witchity witchity witch sound. It’s hard to see as its coloring is yellow and green like the leaves at this time of year.”
Richardson said migration can be hard. “Birds can be blown out to sea, hurt in storms, hit buildings and be eaten by hawks,” she said. “It’s amazing they get through, and how do they know how to do it? They come back like clockwork, almost to the day. It’s magical. This is like Christmas. You go around to the nets and you don’t know what you’re going to get.”
Richardson added that housecats are among the greatest threats to birds. “House cats should really be kept indoors,” she said. “They kill up to 300 birds each per year. If a cat were to come onto the property here and see a wiggling bird in a net, it would go right after it.”
Processing was conducted at a table in the Museum, on which a box of tools and log books were placed. Several visitors came to view the process, which Richardson led and explained step by step. Information the banders capture includes time caught, place caught, bander, band number, species, age and how age was determined, sex and how sex was determined, wing length, body fat and weight.
“Romans started banding birds first, putting strings around their legs,” said Richardson. “It’s been done for a long long time.”