Bird Bander's Primer

Time:   Arrive on time.  If the starting time is sunrise, that does not mean rolling into the parking lot a minute before sunrise.  It means arriving before sunrise and being ready to work.  This also may mean helping to set up tables, getting the Tabular Pyle out, unpacking the electronic balance, organizing the bands, taking weather data, etc. before sunrise.  Each station has a ritual.  Learn it. 
       Do not be late.  There is a legend of one Master Bander who turns helpers away if they are even a minute late.  This is a real bummer, if you got up at 0400 hr and drove an hour just to turn around and go home.
      The "grunt work" comes at the beginning and at the end of a banding cycle.  At the beginning, the 10 or so nets have to be set up.  This may take a half to a full  hour depending upon the number of banders and the conditions.  Then at the end of the day, the nets have to be taken down.  Everything has to be put away.  The bander in charge has to go over the data sheets.  Thus, although formal banding may be over at 1300 hr, it takes another hour before we leave, and another hour for me to get home... 1500 hr.   The general rule is you arrive on time, and you stay until the end.

Attire:  One of the first things you learn about bird banding is the mist nets are exactly that, nets to catch things.  Not only do they catch birds, but they also catch onto clothing, especially buttons, zippers, flaps, snaps, belts, and Velcro.  They catch on to anything you are wearing... binoculars, fanny packs, etc.    This is especially a problem, since outdoor clothing now days seem to have a myriad of pockets (why do you need 7 pockets?), flaps, buttons, zippers, Velcro, and snaps.  Wear clothing that has a minimum amount of these things.  I even take off the "button" on the top of my baseball cap (in spite of the urban legend that it will make your cap fall apart.)  Remove all body armor (watches, bracelets, rings, and body piercings.)  My glasses occasionally get caught in the net, but I can't see without them.  Glass retainers (Croakies, Chums, etc) work, but I have never gotten into the habit of using them.
    Other than that, I usually wear long pants against ticks, poison oak, nettle, briar, bramble, etc.  Sturdy shoes are important, as there is often a lot of walking around making "net rounds."  In wet grassy areas, I wear gaiters.  I always dress in layers; a cold morning often turns into a hot sunny day.  At some stations, Wellingtons (knee high rubber boots) are a must as there are creek crossings.  I got mine at Big 5 for $15.00.  I've seen them at Army Surplus stores.

Gear:  I always carry a pocket knife or one of those folding scissors.  Every once in a while, I need to cut a bird out of the net (see more on this below).  A Swiss Army knife is great because it often has tweezers and a tooth pick to aid getting the netting off a bird.  Some banders like to carry knitting needles or a pocket full of  toothpicks.  I am cheap and make do with a nearby twig.  Always carry along a small notebook and a pencil/pen.  A scrap of paper will do.  I often use old business cards to take down notes.  Most stations now use numbered clothes pins to help remember which bird came from which net.   In spite of what I noted above about everything getting caught in the nets, I always try to carry my binoculars.  For most stations, part of the protocol is to keep any eye for birds that do NOT get caught in the nets.
     You should NEVER arrive without your binoculars, your bird book, and your field notebook.  It is not necessary to keep elaborate field notes on every bird that we capture and band.  A cycle summary is emailed to all participants early the next week.
    If the station cycle also includes an afternoon until sunset session, you will need a flashlight.  There are now an array of headlamps available at places like REI.  One can not get a bird out holding a standard flashlight in one's hand, and one can not hold a police maglite between one's teeth.

Checking nets: Most stations set up their nets so they can be checked in groups of nets by making a loop.  Some loops are longer/shorter; others are more/less difficult to check (climbing up a steep hill or fording a raging river).  Yet others are more/less productive.  Take turns doing the longer, more difficult, less productive loop.  Check each net thoroughly.  Hummingbirds are tiny and can be missed if it is in the far corner of the net in the shadows.  If there are leaves in the net, remove them.  If the net is caught in a twig, remove the twig.  If the net is sagging, adjust the tension.  This is simply good etiquette.  Do not leave it for the next person.  I always try to do a bit of net lane maintenance every time I check nets by pulling up a weed that is starting to reach the net.

Mist nets: The standard 12 meter mist nets typically costs anywhere from $50 to $130+.  Most stations run on a shoestring budget and can not afford to have banders cutting holes in nets every time they take a bird out.  If you are new at a station, make sure you understand the protocol.  At my stations, we usually try to check the nets in pairs.  Thus, if a bird is really tangled, the other person can get help, myself, or whoever is the lead bander, or another more seasoned bander.

Getting a bird out:  If you are using the "body pluck" method championed by C. John Ralph in northern California, one should be able to get almost all birds out in less than a minute.  I have managed to take out a dozen birds in a single net in 3-4 minutes.  If the bird is really tangled or if you can't figure how to get it out, get help!  It is about the bird, not your ego.  If someone else is around, sometimes a new pair of eyes will see the solution.  Take turns getting birds out of the net.  When I approach a net with my banders and there are multiple birds, I do a quick evaluation and dole out the birds based on experience and such.  In our area, Wrentits really get tangled.  Song Sparrows are easier.  Larger hands are helpful for a thrasher which can be a handful.  Smaller hands are better for hummers.

Other tricks:  Always carry enough bird bags, and if you are right handed, put the bags in your right pocket.  One normally gets the bird out of the net with the bird in a bander's grip with the left hand.  It is a pain to switch hands, if the bags are then in your left pocket. The greater is the chance to lose the bird.  The same applies to any tools you use to help you extract the birds. 

Identifying the birds:  While you are extracting the bird, you should be trying to identify the bird to species.  You should begin to see if you can sex the bird.  If the opportunity arises, mentally note some physiological measurements, e.g. if the feathers get ruffled while extracting the birds, you might note some body molt.
            You should do your homework by being able to recognize the most common birds at the station at that time of the year.  At my stations, we rely primarily on National Geographics, but will go to Sibley especially for different plumages.  We will use Dunn and Garrett for warblers and for hummingbirds we use.

Banding birds:  My experience is that every single bird banding station I have ever visited and worked at is different. The rating systems are different.  Some rate by letters; others by numbers.  There is little consistency except for those which are MAPS stations.  The order in which things are done is different.  Many stations have focal birds for which extra or special measurements are taken.  Be aware of these birds.  For example, at our stations, we take feather samples (outer rectrix r6 and inner retrix r1 with the exception of woodpeckers, where we take both r6.) but stop once have 20 samples for a particular species.  We used to take swabs for Avian Influenza monitoring.  Presently, we are looking at Wrentit eye color.  As you can see, there is a lot to be done. 

    My experience is that the quickest way to get up to speed is to be the "recorder."  However, do not be the recorder if your handwriting looks like you wrote with the pencil/pen between your toes.

Bander's Code of Ethics:  You can go to the hyperlink by clicking on the heading, but briefly, it is the bird that is our primary concern.  At the banding station, we keep talk and other noise down to a minimum.  Both the bander and the recorder must be able to hear each other clearly, so that we collect information accurately.  Banders must be able to hear each other as we try to learn and teach about the identifying, ageing, and sexing of birds.
          As a bander, band the bird quickly and efficiently.  Only then, and if you have the time and the bird is not stressed, your experienced bander(s) can take the time to photograph the bird or show the bird to guests, new students, and others.  Photographers get pushy, thinking it will be the last time we will ever see that particular bird species.  We typically see most birds several times during a banding cycle.  If it is truly a rare bird, make sure the most experienced bander processes the bird.  Only then should you let photographs be taken, releasing the bird as soon as it appears stressed.  Some birds will remain calmly in your hands; others will constantly flap and try to escape.  Let it go.  
          One of the biggest mistakes that I observe novice banders make is to what I call "playing with the bird."  This includes petting the bird, talking or cooing to the bird, opening one's hands to check the bird, trying to make the bird bite a twig or finger,  or looking at parts that are irrelevant to identifying, ageing or sexing the bird.  The other mistake is the novice will start "chit-chatting with someone," not paying attention to his/her primary responsibility.  The bird suddenly slips out of the hands and is gone.
            At one station, you owe everyone at the station a (microbrewery) beer for every bird you lose before completely processing the bird.

Other amenities: At my stations, we bring camp chairs to sit on between net rounds and sometimes while we are banding birds, as we do not have a formal banding building like PRBO or BSOL.  At Zuma Canyon, there are now potties, but other stations are primitive, so bring your own toilet paper.  At my stations, we usually have an assortment of munchies, cowboy coffee in the mornings, and sodas in the afternoons.  Most other stations do not.  I no longer make cowboy coffee, as my banders have become snobs, prefer Starbuck's or Peet's coffee, and want some artificial sugar, low fat latte with their coffee.  Forget it!
          Some stations are lucky and have an actual building to band the birds.  Some have what resembles a saloon bar to band birds.  Others have old musky sofas to sit on between net round, real flush toilets, and even refrigerators.