Bird in the Hand

When I was a child, I thought my family enjoyed playing cruel jokes on me every time we drove along Route 60 on the way to Grandma’s house. “Look at the deer,” they’d say. “Where? Where?” I’d respond. “Look at the turkeys!” “Where? Where?” And no wonder I was last to be chosen for a whiffle ball team. “Keep your eye on the ball!” “What ball?”

Once I got my first pair of glasses when I was in the fourth grade a whole world opened to me. But habits die hard. By that time, I had become accustomed to paying attention mostly to things close to me, things I could pick up and bring close to my face. Stones, shells, pinecones, and feathers.

I think these early visual habits also explain why I have entered the birding world so reluctantly. It wasn’t an aversion to birds; I just wasn’t accustomed to looking into the tops of distant trees to see a little flash of yellow or red. Until the fourth grade, the tops of trees looked like impressionist paintings.

To change my visual habits, it took a few close encounters, many of which took place at bird banding stations. My interest in birds deepened when I looked into their eyes and examined individual feathers, or held them just before release, feeling a strange mix of vulnerability and strength. Upon release my eyes would follow their flight and I would note differences between the ways various species move through the sky. If they landed in a nearby tree, I would watch their behavior for a few minutes to see if I could learn anything that would help me know the bird better the next time I encountered it, or another of its species. Over time, I became that person who gleefully takes part in birding walks and fundraisers and takes the long way to work on the chance of seeing a particular bird. You might say that a couple of birds in the hand at bird banding were worth thousands of in the bush later on!

Bird banding is a research technique that has been in use for centuries. According to the United States Geological Survey website, “The first record of a metal band attached to a bird’s leg was about 1595 when one of Henry IV’s banded Peregrine Falcons was lost in pursuit of a bustard in France. It showed up 24 hours later in Malta, about 1350 miles away, averaging 56 miles an hour!”

The North American Bird Banding Program in use today has been jointly administered by the United States Geological Survey and the Canadian Wildlife Service since 1923. To run a research station, ornithologists must be trained and licensed. Jamestown Audubon is lucky to have the services of three licensed bird banders who donate their time and energy to banding projects on our sanctuary. Dr. Scott Stoleson is the Research Wildlife Biologist at the United States Forest Service Northern Research Station lab in Irvine, Pennsylvania. Emily Thomas Perlock teaches Wildlife Technology at Penn State DuBois. Don Watts is active in several birding and wildlife projects.

I often wonder what the trajectory of my career might have been had I attended a bird banding session when I was in middle school, high school or college. Might I have pursued a degree in field biology, become a wildlife technician, gone on to research trends in the environment? As it is, I get to enjoy watching the talented team of ornithologists and their apprentices and live vicariously through them, and that’s a good thing! If you know children and young adults who are trying to find their way in the world, I encourage you to expose them to as many real life experiences as possible. Shadowing people as they do their jobs is one of the best ways to help people answer the question, “What do you want to do when you grow up?”

Bird banding at Jamestown Audubon is made possible in part in loving memory of Fritz Overs by his friends and family. The nature center is located at 1600 Riverside Road in the town of Kiantone, one-quarter mile east of Route 62 between Jamestown, New York and Warren, Pennsylvania. The banding station is accessed by turning into the west entrance, closer to Rt. 62. Look for a “Bird Banding” sign. Demonstrations are scheduled for May 3, 10, and 17, weather permitting. MAPS (Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship) banding begins May 31 and there will be several dates after that through the breeding season. There is no charge to visit the bird banding station, though donations are gratefully accepted. Call the center at (716) 569-2345 to learn more, or visit jamestownaudubon.org.

Boy Scouts who are interested in working on their Bird Study Merit Badge are encouraged to register for a program on May 3 with longtime Scout leader and avid birder Bob Ungerer. Several of the requirements for the badge will be covered in this program which runs from 9 a.m. to noon and costs $8 per Scout.

Jennifer Schlick is program director at Jamestown Audubon. A collection of her photographs is on display through April 30 at the Lakewood Memorial Library Heritage Room. Entitled “Myopia,” the exhibit features close-up views of leaves, flowers, tree bark, moss, and, yes: bird feathers.