The Beauty And Science Of Bird Banding

Nov 8, 2018

After being banded (and everything that comes with it) this male ruby crowned kinglet perched for a few seconds before flying back into the wild.
Credit Connie Kuntz

Who doesn't love the brilliant beauty of a tiny bird? They are adorable and have a way of inspiring young people to pursue scientific careers.

One such person was, and is, Dr. James Marshall, associate professor of biology at Rockford University.  He fell in love with birds when he was eight years old.  Decades later, he has banded more than 10,000 birds.

We followed the ornithologist into the forest of Severson Dells Nature Center, where he bands birds every Thursday during the spring and fall migrations.  We talked to him about science, the environment, and the bird banding process.

Bird banding starts early, before the sun rises. Dr. Marshall and his students meet in the dark and set up mist nets while the birds (and most humans) are asleep. Then…they wait. They wait for the birds to wake up and fly into the nets. 

A black capped chickadee is tangled in a mist net. Soon it will be extracted, banded, and set free.

After a bird lands in a net, it is removed, placed in a bag, and brought to the professor's makeshift outdoor lab. There he measures, weighs, and documents each bird. Often, he takes blood, inspects fecal samples, and pulls ticks off of birds. Later, the blood, fecal matter, ticks, and DNA are analyzed to determine health and gender characteristics of each bird.

Every Thursday during the fall and spring migrations, Dr. Marshall converts a rustic bench into an outdoor lab at Severson Dells.

Fecal matter.

It's a dirty job, but somebody has to do it. He inspects the bird's poop. When a bird is untangled from the net, it is placed inside a bag where it has no choice but to wait. This is stressful for birds, and they almost always defecate in the bag. Oftentimes, the feces contains undigested honeysuckle seeds. If Marshall finds a seed, sometimes he saves it, plants it, and monitors its growth in the greenhouse at Rockford University. He also harvests seeds from honeysuckle bushes. Then he grows those seeds. He monitors and compares the growth of the seeds. This is part of a long process of understanding how honeysuckle grows and is spread.

Dr. Marshall takes a blood sample from the brachial artery.

Why blood?

Many people can easily tell the difference between a male cardinal and a female cardinal because the male's plumage is brighter than the female's. This is true in many birds, but the only way to identify the gender of some birds is through blood samples.

By analyzing the blood samples, for example, Marshall can count how many male wood thrushes there are instead of female wood thrushes. He can track which birds are bigger, weigh more, or have slightly different plumage. Hopefully, this will eventually lead to being able to identify the gender and other characteristics of the birds without drawing blood. It should go without saying that an essential component of Marshall's teaching philosophy is cultivating patience. 

Why ticks?

If he finds a tick on a bird, he pulls it off with a pair of tweezers, places it in a tiny plastic vial, and sends it to the lab. At the lab, it will be inspected for Lyme disease. Part of Marshall's ongoing research is figuring out how pervasive Lyme disease is in northern Illinois. 

Why do you band birds?

Each band has a federal number. Oftentimes, the birds are caught by other bird banders who can then look up the bird and learn about its past. The data collected includes location, length, weight, fat count, date, time of day, the presence of abnormalities, and other items. Once, a bird Marshall banded at Severson Dells was re-captured in Central America by other bird banders. This is an example of how bird banding helps us track the migration patterns and survival rates of birds.

All these details help Marshall and his students understand the environment better. This "learn about birds, learn about the world" mentality is directly related to his own interest in birds. When he was a child, seeing and admiring a bird through his bedroom window led him outside. Being outside connected him to nature. Being in nature inspired him to pay attention to the environment. Caring about the environment led him to understand environmental events.

"I was interested in things like the Exxon Valdez oil spill," he said. "It happened while I was in high school. Climate Change was becoming an issue. Acid rain was an issue at the time. So there were a number of issues that were environmental issues that they are big questions, big scientific questions, big environmental scientific questions that bridged my entry."

Birds help connect Marshall to his students. "I use birds to help students get to where they are going," he said. "So a student who wants to be a pre-med, who wants to do research, they can come out here and study Lyme disease in birds. Or someone who is interested in conservation -- They can all be out here -- all through this interesting bird connection."

One of those students is Jennifer Driscoll. She was in the forest helping him band the birds. At first she spoke to her personal connection with birds.

Rockford University student Jennifer Driscoll admired birds at an early age and now studies them as part of her science education.

"I've always loved birds. My dad trained hunting dogs and he used to walk around with a field guide for birds," Driscoll said. "He used to hunt dove, his favorite bird was a pheasant." 

She said her relationship with birds now has a "totally different dynamic" from when she was a young girl.    She spoke to her scientific connection to birds.

"I had no idea birds could be carriers or vectors of Lyme disease so doing this is really kind of awesome," she said. "It's something that could make a difference eventually. And I just love research. I want to get into research."

After several hours of trapping, analyzing, and banding birds, we asked Dr. Marshall, "Is bird banding always fun?"

"Not every day I'm out here banding birds is a great day. If you've been around this fall you know the mosquitoes earlier were quite atrocious. If you're doing something that you're interested in, committed to, etc., then that gets you through the tough days because you know this is what you're supposed to be doing, what you want to be doing, and whether it's medical school, being a doctor, being a teacher, being whatever. That gets you through the hard days because all your careers have difficult days," he said.

The Illinois Audobon Society is located in Springfield. Its trails open all year round and are home to hundreds of birds.
Credit Connie Kuntz

2018 is the Year of the Bird in Illinois. If you are interested in celebrating or learning more about birds, visit The Illinois Audobon Society in Springfield or simply take a walk in one of the state's many forests.