Banded ovenbird
Banded ovenbird
In the early 1800s, an inquisitive teen near Philadelphia fastened silver threads to the legs of several nestling Eastern phoebes, hoping to learn whether they would return the next spring. The young man was John James Audubon. Since then, over 60 million birds have been banded, with about

4 million bands recovered and reported. With odds of band recoveries so inevitably low, is bird banding a worthwhile, viable scientific venture? Absolutely! The data gathered from sightings of banded birds help ornithologists study the distribution and movements of species, their relative numbers, annual production, life span, and causes of death. Bird management policies and conservation measures are also built on current, or shifting, data trends.

Federal bird banding operations are regulated and supported through the U.S. Geological Survey, which issues the bands and maintains a long-standing database that began at The Bird Banding Laboratory in Maryland in 1904. Most small birds are caught in mist nets stretched between poles, extended panels of fine-mesh strands that blend with the surroundings. When caught, each individual is identified as to its species, measured, and weighed. Then, a uniquely numbered aluminum band, and sometimes also colored plastic bands, is placed on the bird’s legs. Importantly, the date and banding location are recorded.

Through the years, I’ve encountered several banded birds, like a dead storm-tossed royal tern in 1991 at Popham Beach, a juvenile, banded some weeks earlier in coastal North Carolina. Remarkably, that particular tern was banded by a close friend of my birding companion of the day, Mark Libby. Separated by several hundred miles, Mark and his friend had actually held the same bird. And since 2012, I’ve kept annual tabs on a leg-banded ringed-billed gull that summers at a breeding colony near Montreal, Canada, and winters around Rockland. But we see only the slightest fraction of migrating birds, since most songbirds pass above our rooftops by night.

On May 19, I received a phone message that a banded ovenbird (see photo)had been found on a Warren porch, after striking a window. I collected the banded bird remains and reported the sighting online to USGS. Ovenbirds are small, olive, thrush-like warblers that breed east of the Appalachians and across parts of Canada, with Eastern populations overwintering in Florida and the Caribbean. Their carefully concealed, dome-shaped nests are built amid leaf litter directly on the ground. You might hear their ringing, rhythmic “teacher- teacher- TEACHER! call from wooded settings.

When I reported the sighting to USGS online, I received a quick, computer response: “Unfortunately, we cannot process your report immediately. The bander has not yet submitted the data for this band, so we are unable to process your report at this time. The bander is being notified that a recovery of one of their bands has occurred, along with a request that they submit the banding data as soon as possible.”

Three days later, I received a printed report: Band Number 2721-63608 - Banded 05/17/2021 NEAR NEWBURY, ESSEX COUNTY, MASSACHUSETTS, USA (COORDINATES: LAT: 42.75722; LON: -70.80333). A staff member of Mass Audubon had banded the ovenbird just two days prior to its May 19th demise in Warren. This means the warbler had traveled roughly 200 miles in that short span of time!

We are constantly fascinated by the remarkable long-distance feats of birds. Consider two common terns now at Metinic Island, an offshore seabird nesting retreat, and part of the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge. These two birds are marked with noticeable colored leg tags that identify where they were banded. In their case, the banding location was Argentina!