As the early morning sunlight began to peek through the trees, Linda Grein helped her mother Sue Popp take a seat inside a small wooden pavilion at Barr Lake State Park.
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Learn more and register at https://www.birdconservancy.org/what-we-do/education/bird-banding/.
Nearby, scientists and volunteers were gently trapping migratory birds — many of which were about to begin a long journey to Central or South America, and others that were already on their way. They caught house wrens, song sparrows, Wilson's warblers and more yellow warblers than you can imagine, put identification bands on their legs and set them free.
At 93, Popp loves birds. And on Aug. 26, Grein woke her up extra early so she could see dozens of them up close.
Barr Lake State Park is one of five sites across Colorado and Nebraska where visitors can watch staff from The Bird Conservancy of the Rockies conduct bird banding each fall.
Bird banding is a method used to collect data about wild birds to increase scientific understanding of migratory routes and timings, species’ range limits, average lifespans and how all these life-history characteristics may be changing over time.
On the state park property, there are 25 barely visible nets, so thin they're called mist nets, volunteer Cynde Barnes said. Birds fly into these nets and gently fall into a pocket, where volunteers and staff retrieve them to bring to the banding station, she said.
At the station, bander and volunteer coordinator Meredith McBurney measure the width of each bird’s leg to determine which size band would be the best fit. She then attaches a lightweight aluminum band to one leg on each bird.
“So every bird gets a band, every band has a different number. And of course if it's caught again, we know exactly which one it is,” McBurney said, pausing every now and then to announce measurements of the bird’s wingspan, tail feathers, weight, amount of fat and stage of molting to a volunteer keeping track of the numbers on a handwritten chart.
This data is sent to the U.S. Geological Survey, which gathers data from banders across the nation to analyze and track migratory patterns and population well-being, McBurney said. When a banded bird is caught in a different location, it provides information about that bird’s travel path, she said.
'Ancestry dot com' approach
In addition to taking note of the band number and measurements, McBurney collects two feathers from some of the birds she catches. These feathers are sent to Colorado State University to contribute to the Bird Genoscape Project, she said.
“In order to be able to conserve birds, we have to be able to understand their full lifecycle. That is everything that happens to the bird during the year,” McBurney said. “One of the ways we can do that, besides putting on a band and catching it again, is to look at the DNA.”
“The Bird Genoscape Project is a genomics-based project where we are looking to sort of take an 'ancestry dot com' approach to avian genetics,” said Jacob Job, associate director of the project.
The project started in 2009 as a partnership between scientists at CSU and the University of California, Los Angeles, Job said. In 2019, the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies started to contribute DNA samples to the project, McBurney said.
Banding is scientifically useful to understand overall population patterns but it has its limits. Collecting DNA samples can take scientists well beyond those limitations, Job said.
“Part of the problem with banding is you have to recover those same birds…That's very difficult,” Job said. “Our approach, we don't ever have to recapture a bird… If we capture an American Robin in the winter in Mexico, all we have to do is pull a feather from that bird, look at its genetics, and we can see which population that bird came from.”
Job said the project helps scientists to better understand which populations are struggling and which are doing well, so that conservation energy and money can be directly applied where it is most needed.
Within the larger mission of conservation, it’s important to care for the habitats where birds spend time, Barnes said. Barr Lake State Park is an important stopover on the migratory path for many species, as it provides food, water, shelter and space, she said.
“This is an absolute important migratory stopover,” she said. “It’s not just a minor little thing. So we want to preserve Barr Lake and we want people to understand what an absolute gem they have in their backyard, because so many people from Brighton have never even been here.”
Visitors can register online to spend a morning at the site to learn about bird banding like Grein and Popp did. The station is open to the public Tuesdays-Sundays until Oct. 23. Visiting the station costs $6 per person.
In addition to the educational value of learning about bird conservation, experiencing bird banding up close can be magical, no matter what age you are.
“It’s like being a child again, you know?” Popp said. “It’s wonderful.”
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to replace the term "subspecies" with "populations" in order to be more accurate.
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