It’s 7:30 on a chilly Saturday morning. Most of the world is taking advantage of the weekend and sleeping in all nice and comfy under their warm blankets. I, on the other hand, am heading down to a place called Dutch Gap to watch a group of LOONS catching birds and fitting them for bracelets. Or is it anklets? I’m not quite sure… either way, it’s a bunch of birds getting jewelry and acting none too happy about it.
So what is bird banding, and why do people do it? Good question! You hear all the time about how human activities are affecting the natural world, and this is a way to find out more about that. Where are the birds? What are they doing? Where are they going? How long do they live? Since it’s really difficult to tell one bird from another, the only way that we have of distinguishing is by somehow marking the birds. As part of the Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship (MAPS) program in cooperation with the US Department of the Interior, this group of volunteers heads out on a regular basis and sets up nets to safely catch the local flying fauna. One of the places they do this is at Dutch Gap in Chesterfield County.
The Dutch Gap Conservation Area is 810 acres of woods and wetlands nestled against the James River, complete with it’s own heronry apparently. (For those of you who are just joining us, a heronry is a rookery for Great Blue Herons. It’s a word, despite what spellchecker says. A rookery is where birds go to nest.) It also hosts a protected lagoon that is perfect for kayaking around sunken tugboats. Of course it is also immediately adjacent to a the coal-burning Dominion-Virginia Power Chesterfield Plant that was rated 36th in pollution in 2009. (Hey, don’t take my word for it.) So there’s that. It wasn’t always that way though… (and to be fair, they do seem to be getting better)
Dutch Gap is and was immediately behind the Citie of Henricus, also known as Henricopolis, or just plaine olde Henrico. The citie was built as an alternative to the swampy, mosquito infested colony of Jamestown and was cleverly named after the King’s son, Henry by Sir Thomas Dale. The colony was built on a particularly bendy part of the James, and in order to save time in traveling the river Dale cut a ditch straight across. He learned this technique when he was in Holland, so the cut was called Dale’s Dutch Gap. During the Civil War the aggressors, I mean Union troops, started to expand the ditch to a canal utilizing help from the United States Colored Troops.
Back to present day, and we have a demonstration of the process of banding birds! Each bird is given a special bracelet with a number that is used only for that bird. The number is recorded, the bird is weighed, and then the bird is released back into the wild to tell all of his or her friends and start a fashion trend. As you can see, there were an awful lot of Northern Cardinals on this particular day. I think they were all in town to vote for a new Pope. Side note, most of the bands are made out of aluminum, but Cardinals have such strong beaks that they would just rip those right off so they get stainless steel.
If a pre-banded bird happens to be caught, the team records the information and can get a better idea of life-spans and how long they stick around in a particular habitat. A bird that makes it beyond a year is doing well, and they have seen some that have been around for 4 years and more!
It should go without saying that nothing they do to capture and band the birds hurt them in any way. If the bird even appears to be upset or freaked out (beyond the normal, “Hey, I’m in a net!” kind of freaked out) they simply let them go on their way. The health of the birds is more important than the data. The jewelry also does not interfere with their flight, you won’t see any birds flying around in circles after being banded. Unless they want to, of course.
I’d like to thank Chesterfield County, Julie Kacmarcik and the other volunteers who wake up early, chug Thermoses of coffee, and put ankle bracelets on tiny birds… for SCIENCE! My visit was part of a Chesterfield County sponsored Demonstration Day, and I look forward to heading out again soon! Next time, I will wear thicker socks and apparently stay until after everyone else leaves to see the good stuff!
Are there any other RVA locations you’ve been HERON about? I’m always excited to demonstrate my CARDINAL knowledge. If you liked this article, remember that one good TERN deserves another! And… I’m done. Leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!