Bird banding at Western is more than hobby


Ornithology instructor Jack Hilsabeck, who has a permit to band birds, has been doing so at the Western campus since 2001 to gain important data

BirdsSeveral nets that look like the ones used to play badminton, only with finer material, are set up in secluded clearings on campus surrounded by timber. Unlike the game of badminton, however, catching a “birdie” in these nets is the whole point of the activity.

Missouri Western ornithology instructor Jack Hilsabeck, along with senior wildlife conservation major Ryan Evans and Missouri Audubon Society board of directors member Larry Lade are the keepers of the mist nets from late summer through early fall. They band birds, which are caught in the nets, and learn valuable information in the process.

“I band almost every morning from about daylight until we stop catching bids – usually 9:30 or 10 in the morning,” said Hilsabeck, who has a bird-banding permit.

Hilsabeck, who has been banding at Western since 2001, said that the information gleaned from banding at the Western campus is sent to a federal database. According to the Web site of the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, which was established by Congress in 1939, banding provides information about migration patterns, behavior and social structure, life spans, population, toxicology and disease.

But Hilsabeck’s main objective on campus currently is to determine whether this area is a good place for migrating birds to stop and replenish fat reserves. To determine fat content, they must first catch the birds.

“The netting used is real fine, like a lady’s hairnet,” Hilsabeck said. “The birds can’t see it and fly into it. After they hit it, they fall down into the ‘envelope’ at the bottom of the net.”

Some mornings they might catch 40 or 50 birds, and other mornings they only get four or five. The birds range from small wrens, warblers and sparrows up to larger flickers or brown thrushes.

After they have caught the bird, they free it from the net so they can weigh it and determine the age, sex and fat content. If the bird already has a band, untangling it becomes more of a challenge because extreme caution is used so the bird is not injured. Birds have different dispositions about being manhandled, and some can deliver a fierce bite hard enough to draw blood. Size is not a determining factor in demeanor.

For example, all three men will attest that the tiny chickadees, which the journal “Science” reports use one of the most sophisticated signaling systems discovered among animals, are also one of the most aggressive songbirds they have caught.

The men interchange duties, and although Evans originally set out to work with primates, he said that birds can be addictive.

“I’ve always had an interest in wildlife,” Evans said. “I recently got into birds after a bird ID class I took with Jack.”

To determine fat content, Evans gingerly holds the bird on its back in the palm of his hand and blows on its underside. As the soft feathers part, Evans is able to see the area around the wishbone. If the area is concave, the bird has zero fat content. The more convex it is the higher the fat content, up to a measurement of three.

Hilsabeck said birds that have flown 150 to 200 miles can have fat contents of zero.

“In one night they can use that reserve,” he said. “Then they stop and eat for about three days.”

Some of the birds might put on 15 to 20 percent in body weight during a stopover, Hilsabeck said.

When the birds’ activity slows down each morning, the men roll up the nets so the birds don’t accidentally fly into them and become caught during the night. Then the next day they unroll them again and wait, hoping for a big score. They never know when the next “birdie” in the net might be a rare one.

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