Mother Nature’s Wake Up Call

Owen Flanagan, Bird Conservancy of the Rockies volunteer and a member of Denver Audubon’s the Young Birders’ Club, writes on his experiences at the bird banding station.

For my first day back at the station I’ve set my alarm sound to “quacking duck.” I have a 5:15 AM wake-up call. My alarm doesn’t ring! Luckily, my mom wakes me up.

When we arrive at the bird banding station the air is cool. I listen to the morning chorus of birds. I hear the trilling buzz of the Red-winged Blackbirds. The Canada Geese honk as they take off from the pond. But something is missing. I listen more closely. I should be hearing other birds, but I’m not.

This is my third year at the station. I became interested in bird banding when I visited the station and got to see the birds up close. I’ve always been an animal lover. Now I volunteer as a data recorder.

Every half hour is a new cycle at the station. The cycle looks like this: We use 6 and 12 meter long, fine, gentle mist nets to capture birds. Every 20 to 30 minutes we check the nets. When we find a bird in the net, we take it back to the station in a soft, cloth bag to examine it. After we confirm its species, we place a numbered ID band on its leg. Then we measure and record its wing length, tail length, weight, and body fat rating. In spring, we also check for signs of breeding. Breeding females have brood patches – bald spots on their chests that allow them to warm their eggs more effectively. Breeding males have cloacal protuberances – cloacal bulges that store sperm. My job is to record this data.

We record data for multiple reasons. First, it helps us understand bird migrations and populations. When a banded bird is recaptured, it is processed again. This lets us see how that individual bird is doing and where it has been. But this data also gives us broader information about species health and migration patterns.

The data we get from bird banding also tells us about our overall climate and environment. Just like miners once used canaries in their coal mines to suss out dangerous gasses, we can use bird banding data to better understand the impacts of global warming, pollution, and habitat destruction. What’s good for the birds is good for us.

At the bird-banding station, it’s a slow day. There are fewer birds than expected and the usual migratory species are absent. Resident species that are normally breeding by now are not ready to breed. We are not seeing what we expected to see.

We don’t yet have data to know why, but we start to talk about theories. What could be causing this? Birds have faced many challenges this year. They’ve had to deal with drought, storms, wildfires, a freezing event in Texas, and a cold, late spring. These have affected the birds themselves and also the plants and insects that are their food sources. None of this has been good for the birds.

We know that bird populations have been declining for decades. In North America alone, bird populations have dropped by 3 billion over the past 50 years. If what we are seeing at the bird banding station this year is any indication, this pattern is accelerating.

Just like I have my mom to wake me up when I oversleep, we have Mother Nature. We have overslept on environmental issues, and the birds are Mother Nature’s wake-up call for us.

Daley, Jim. Silent Skies: Billions of North American Birds Have Vanished. Scientific American, 19 Sept 2019.
Accessed 1 May 2021.