Wildlife Watch: Why bird banding is so important

ADDISON, Vt. (WCAX) As the temperatures drop, it's time for birds to head south. But before they do, the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department wants to give them a special band to keep track of them. Our Cat Viglienzoni visited a bird banding session to find out why it's important.

Cat Viglienzoni: We're at the Dead Creek Wildlife Area and talking to Rodney Olsen, who's a licensed bird bander. Tell me-- what are we doing today?
Rodney Olsen: Well, we're setting up nets in the woods to catch migrating birds. And our goal is to educate students on the importance of looking after the environment and what they can do to help protect the environment.
Cat Viglienzoni: So bird banding. For people who don't know why the state would bother to do this, tell me a little bit about why it's important to keep track of these birds.
Rodney Olsen: Well, it's important to keep track of the birds for the birds' sake, as well as for the environment's sake so we know how we're affecting the environment. We can use them as environmental indicators. However, what we're doing today is more educational than anything else. And we find that to be the most important aspect of banding.
Cat Viglienzoni: What kind of educational opportunities are there?
Rodney Olsen: For students, today-today, the students will get to walk out into the woods, hopefully find a bird in the net, help us band it, record data and release the birds.
Cat Viglienzoni: On the bands-- are there numbers? How do you keep track of all of them?
Rodney Olsen: Yeah, each one has its own special number, so this way if a bird is found dead or alive, what they could do is they could track that number. They could report it to the federal bird banding lab and they'll contact us, and we'll get to draw a line and find out where this bird went. Today, what we're trying to do is just identify the species of the bird. Once we do that, we can figure out the size of the band that it requires. We'll put a band on the bird and then just do simple measurements, such as wing cord. We'll measure fat to see how healthy the bird is, and then we'll release the bird.
Cat Viglienzoni: What do the students get out of a banding experience?
Rodney Olsen: Well, it's the fact that they're not in school. It's nice to be in a classroom, but I think what we realize is a bird in the hand is worth two in the books. So if we could get kids outside, looking up rather than, as we all do now, looking down at a device of some sort, we could increase awareness.
Cat Viglienzoni: And of course, part of bird banding is identifying which birds they are. And Craig Zondag with the Otter Creek Audubon Society is here to tell us a little bit about which birds we have. What kind of birds do we look for when we're out?
Craig Zondag: Well, out here in Dead Creek we're looking oftentimes for waterfowl. This is one of the emphases and creations of Dead Creek. So right now, as you have been introduced to the migration of songbirds that are coming through, there's also a variety of waterfowl that's migrating through, too. There are 158 species of waterfowl in North America and Mexico. And 33 of those species can be seen here in Addison County during some time of the year during their migration. So some of these birds are going to be pretty common that you're going to be pretty good at recognizing, like green-head or the mallard. And we're going to be introducing field markings to identifying these birds to the students who are coming today. We're often looking at areas like this part here. This is called a speculum on the wing of the mallard. And it's flanked by these white stripes. And it makes this bird very easy to identify in flight, even from a distance. And there's also a variety of different bill shapes depending on where the bird is feeding. A lot of people don't realize that ducks not only feed on aquatic insects, but there are ducks that actually feed on fish. So the bird on the end here is a common merganser. And you can see how sharp the bill is. Those aren't actually teeth. It's just part of the bill itself. And that helps grab and hold the fish so that it can swallow it. And what's really interesting is to compare the overall shape of the mallard bill to the merganser bill. It's much narrower and wider.
Cat Viglienzoni: The Department of Fish and Wildlife of course puts this whole thing on. And Corey Hart is here to tell us a little bit more about how that happens-- I understand volunteers are a big part of this.
Corey Hart: So volunteers actually played a lot into this entire event. We have volunteers here from Otter Creek Audubon who are running the study skin station and birding from a distance station, which is right behind us, as well as local bird banders at the bird banding station.
Cat Viglienzoni: And what are people's reactions when they come and they see these birds up close?
Corey Hart: Everybody really wants to handle a bird. And we'll walk you right through why we band birds, and hopefully you'll get to see a bird if it's a good morning!
Cat Viglienzoni: All right, well thank you so much for joining us, and putting on this event-- we'll let people know!
Corey Hart: Well, thank you for coming!

There are still two sessions of bird banding that are open to you if you want to check them out. One is Friday, Oct. 20, from 8-11 p.m. at Snake Mountain. They'll be doing owl banding there. And there is another songbird banding Saturday, Oct. 21, from 8 a.m.-noon at the Dead Creek area. Click here for more details.