I Want to Learn How to Band Birds!
I get one of these emails a half dozen times a year (thus far, in 2012, this has been 15+). On one hand this is not particularly surprising. I operate one of the only two (?) year round constant effort bird banding stations in southern California. Since I have been operating this station for over 15 years, I am fairly well known throughout the ornithological community of southern California (and beyond), so ornithologists point people in my direction. Simply Googling bird banding, southern California, Walt Sakai, etc will bring me up. So I am not hard to find.
The problem I have encountered is that people think this is the fast track to learning birds, learning to be a bird bander, and learning field biology. Others simply think it is soooo cool to hold a bird. I recently had a woman quit after one visit, after I admonished her for not following my instructions and not releasing the bird when asked. I also can't teach you much if you come out intermittently once every two to three cycles. You will not remember the protocols, the tricks, and way things are done.
Learning birds: It is real cool to see birds up close and in hand. Certainly it is much easier than looking at birds flitting through the shrubbery with a pair of binoculars. A typical comment is "gosh, this is the first time I've ever gotten a good view of a Wrentit," the most common bird we catch. But we capture and band maybe half of the birds seen in one canyon (Zuma Canyon) in one particular habitat (chaparral) in the Santa Monica Mountains. On a typical day, we capture between 15-20 species and 50 individuals. There are over 600 species of birds seen in California. In my younger days, when I first decided to learn my birds, I spent almost every weekend for two years going out across the state by myself, with friends, on Audubon field trips, etc to merely begin to learn my birds.
Learning to be a bird bander:
Again, it is cool to see birds up close and in hand. Getting up at 4:30a
while it is still dark, driving on the roads when there is no one else on the
Ventura Freeway, getting to the site before dawn when it is freezing cold, only
to be ready to work at sunrise, seems fun the first time. Anyone can do
that once. There is a good reason why Easter Sunrise Church Service occurs
only once a year! I've had six year olds come out to bird banding. My son
was banding birds when he was 10 years old. (Impressive as that may seem,
legend has it that David Sibley banded his first bird at the age of 7).
The point is that it is easy to band a bird. But my son did not really
know the birds he was banding... except maybe the 100's of Cliff Swallows we band together.
Extracting birds from the mist nets is something else that one must learn. Again, my son has excellent manual dexterity as well as skills of seeing how the bird went into the net and how to get it out. I've know adults who had 10 thumbs and would have gotten 0% on those spatial tests. The truly difficult part is learning to age and sex the birds, and no, my son could not do that at 10.
I know when someone is truly interested in bird banding when he/she starts to come out over and over again. At present, I have a high school freshman that has been coming out regularly for over two years. Now that is impressive. Like anything else, you get to do a lot of watching initially and will slowly get hands on experience. There is quite a learning curve as identifying the bird is the easy part. A good ornithology course helps, as you need to learn bird topography, bird anatomy, bird physiology, molts, etc., because you must learn how to age and sex the bird as well.
The weather is hot or cold (never mild). There is a lot of walking for more than six hours. We start at sunrise, setting up mist nets and banding for six hours. It then takes an hour or more to take down ~12-17 mist nets, clean up, pack up, and head home. Add travel time, by the time you get home you will have spent a good 8-9 hours.
Repetition: Typically, at my station there is an eclectic crew of banders. Some have been banding with me for 10+ years, while others are newbies. Some are retired, others are professions in a variety of careers, and yet others are young college students. The group has been good about teaching and learning from each other. Typically, there may be a half dozen bodies. Since we usually catch ~40 birds per cycle (morning), you may get to process (our term for banding) about 8-9 birds. Another reason it takes a long time to becoming good at this.
How long does it take to learn all of
this?: At a minimum, it takes a full year to see and experience
everything. Besides the resident birds, there are the summer visitors, the
fall and spring migrants, and the winter visitors. You need to learn the
alternate plumage as well as the basic plumage. You need to be able to
recognize breeding vs non-breeding condition. You need to be able to skull
a bird and see open and closed skulls through the course of a year. You
need to learn molt limits, something that even I have difficulty with at times.
And you need to learn how to set up a 12 m long x 2.8 m high mist net... alone. You need to be able to extract a bird from the mist net.
A colleague and I got into a discussion about this, as he felt he could train a bander in maybe three months. Well, that is possible if you are able to band six days a week, and if you are operating a station with one other person. You would get enough reps in three months at his stations, as you would in one year at my station.
To become "good" at this? You will probably want to band with me for a year, and then you really need to go to a major bird banding station, and band there six days a week for several months. I've had a number of individuals who have had banding experience come to our station to hone and upgrade their skills. Several graduate students have gone on to work on their dissertations, but I don't think I can teach what you need to know in one season, so you can go out into the field to complete a thesis project. In fact, this page got its impetus when a graduate student posted a request for someone to mentor him to band hummingbirds, and he had a window from Jan - Mar to learn how to band hummers. Of course, he was in the Deep South, where there are no hummingbirds at that time of year. His posting was followed by a series of scoffing at this request. Then, there was my experience of a graduate student wanting to learn how to band Mountain Bluebird chicks, when there were no chicks available and how to mist net and band adults of the same... in the space of a month or so before her field season started, . My response was "no way." This seems to be a familiar theme these days among graduate students. Learn the techniques and skills as you go along, rather than before you tackle a thesis project. Mostly I fault their major professors.
Permit: You need a federal permit to band birds. To become a Master Bander to be able to band solo without being accountable (within reason), many years of banding with lots of experience under another Master Bander is required. A Subpermit allows you to band under the authority of a Master Bander. To reach this level requires a few less years. Do not expect me to give you a subpermit, even if you came out diligently every banding cycle (every two weeks) for a year. The only exceptions have been to a couple of subpermits for very restricted situations, e.g. chicks in bluebird boxes or small owls.
You want to come out? Don't email me with a message that you want to come out and learn how to band birds. Tell me about yourself and your experience. Your training? Have you every banded any birds? How many? where? Have you taken an ornithology course? Are you a decent birder? Why do you want to learn to band birds? Be up front and clear. I had one interested person. We emailed each other a couple of times. She had taken an ornithology course and was a decent birder. She seemed a good possibility. Then I find out that she could not come out regularly because she was only 8 years old and needed her parents to driver her! And the two ornithology courses were two Young Ornithology weekend courses offered by her local Audubon Society. I rolled my eyes.
Last updated 11 September 2012