I’ve come a little late to the banding station, anxious that I’ve missed something. I wait, but no one shows up for 15, 30, 45 minutes, and finally over an hour late for the first net run. When Carrie finally returns, the first thing she says is “It’s been a real hell of a morning.” I ask why. She tells me a horrifying tale, something I couldn’t have dreamed up in my worst nightmares.
Rose Lake Wildlife Research Area banding station is divided into a side with mostly invasive plants and a side with mostly native plants. This way the banders can research physiological differences between the birds on the non-native and native sides. Rose Lake is also crisscrossed by roads and trails, all open to the public. For this reason, the banding station has been located off one of the most inconspicuous trails so as to avoid attention from hunters and hikers. But that morning, Carrie told me, she had been tipped off by a fisherman that a man had been camping on the invasives side, unfurling the nets and eating the birds he captured. She told me that there were several nets in bad shape, having been furled carelessly and left with debris stuck in them.
I’m not ready for what I see, though, when she takes me to see the damage for myself. Five of the mist nets are so full of branches and leaves that they appear beyond repair. In one of the nets remains the tail and feet of a Blue-winged Warbler. In other nets there are the tail and tail coverts of a female American Redstart and the hallux of another small bird. These birds were obviously not extracted from the net by a bird bander, but hacked out with a knife. Several trammels are also slashed open, leaving gaping holes in the fragile netting.
I find it hard to believe that someone could have so little respect for scientific research. Besides that, there is not even a half-ounce of meat on a small songbird such as a redstart or Blue-winged Warbler. I am horrified and disgusted by what has happened. When we get back to the banding tent, we get out the scale and discover that the batteries have been taken out. We search for the extra batteries, only to find that those have been taken as well. It doesn’t take long before Carrie and the other bander, Yushi, discover that one of the machetes and the lopper have been stolen. It’s a horrible thought: the man who slaughtered and ate all of those birds is loose somewhere with a machete and a pair of loppers.
This incident, as rare as it must be, brings to mind the risks of bird banding. I am aware that birds sometimes die, whether in or out of the nets, at banding stations. Chipmunks, raptors, and wet, cold, or hot weather can cause bird deaths at banding stations. I am bothered that any birds die at all in these situations, but I have seen banders typically feel responsible to minimize those risks. At Rose Lake, for example, the next day’s operations will be cancelled if the weather forecast shows that it will be too hot, cold, or stormy.
I am also aware that some individuals and organizations believe that bird banding should be stopped altogether. I disagree. The scientific knowledge that comes out of banding studies is valuable. In addition, the newly imposed restrictions on who can get a banding permit ensure that bird banders know what they are doing, and the numbers of birds that die at a banding station are almost always, if not always, very small compared to the numbers of birds that are released alive. I have never witnessed a bird death during the banding process.
One particular anti-banding group catches my attention. It calls itself Stop Banding Birds and most of my experience with the group comes from browsing its Facebook page. The group appears to have originally formed in protest of banding American Dippers in the Pacific Northwest. Their case for stopping the banding of dippers seems well founded and includes photographs of birds whose legs have been worn raw by the bands while they were hunting in the fast-flowing mountain streams. Since it formed, the Facebook group has gone on to protest all kinds of avian and other wildlife research worldwide, claiming that “banders and wildlife biologists are a shameless group” and bird banding is “worthless research, that only kills birds.” While their original concerns about banding Dippers seems to have some merit, these sweeping statements appear to be inaccurate.
I am interested, though, in whether they have evidence to back up their broader claims. Members of Stop Banding Birds routinely post about such topics as “The Kiptopeke Problem,” (a description is beyond the scope of this post) which I cannot substantiate despite much searching on the Internet. These incidents, it seems, are simply not mentioned anywhere except on the Stop Banding Birds Facebook page.
It is unfortunate that some birds die in the process of being banded. However, because of the value of the knowledge that comes from banding, I choose to trust that bird bander’s are a cautious and caring when it comes to bird mortality. I would argue that the new insights into the lives of birds make it important that the practice of bird banding not be stopped because of a few mortalities. The good that comes to birds from banding, in my opinion, far outweighs the risks that birds face from the practice.