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A Bird in the Hand . . .

"(What is the) extinction of a condor to a child who has never seen a wren?" -Naturalist Robert Michael Pyle

Have you ever wondered how we know that a Swainson’s hawk travels up to 7,500 miles during migration? Or a Northern cardinal can live 15 years? The answer comes from their bird bands. Bird banding can be traced back over 200 years, when people began to place identifiers or marks on birds. In the 18th century, John James Audubon would mark phoebes in his yard and realized some birds born one year would return the next. Today, this has evolved into more than 50 million banding records currently maintained by the US Geological Survey.

Bird banding is done by placing a uniquely numbered plastic or metal band on a bird. This is usually placed on their foot, but can be also placed other places, such as around the neck of a Trumpeter swan. Birds are aged and sexed. The number is recorded and the birds released.Should the bird be recaptured or have their band read by an observer, the band tells where the bird has been and when.

  • A Herring Gull banded in New Jersey in 1933 was recovered dead in South Africa in 1969.
  • A female Jaeger was removed from her nest in England and taken to New York City and released. She was back on the nest in 52 hours.
  • A female Pintail was banded near New Orleans and recovered six years later in China.
  • A female Rose-breasted Grosbeak was banded on June 6, 1981 and was recovered on October 22, 1982 in Guatemala.

​Last fall, Craig Hensley, lead education specialist at Schlagle Environmental Library, Wyandotte County Lake Park, returned to the Kansas City area and brought with him an active bird banding program. While he enjoys the scientific/data gathering aspects of bird banding, Craig will tell you he does it to see the joy in the faces of children and adults as they assist in the release of the bird.

By Mary Nemecek with information from Craig Hensley