The National Banding Lab has records of over 64 million birds each year, the banding project at Rushton Farm adds to that.
Dawn breaks at Rushton Farm, and the first light illuminates sparkling drops of dew clinging to a mist net, carefully spread open by a bird bander between a tangle of honeysuckle shrubs. The net lay furled the previous night in the crisp autumnal darkness of the dense undergrowth as untold hundreds of songbirds burned through the starry sky on southbound wings, taking advantage of the cool stillness of the night.
The Banding Process
Now the team of bird banders work swiftly to open all ten nets around the farm and nature preserve while keeping their ears peeled to the dawn contact calls between birds—miraculously revealing to the experienced birder the number and species of the migrants that descended to rest their weary wings in this critical stopover habitat of plentiful food and shelter.
A flash of gold suddenly appears out of the morning mist and into the black nylon mesh of the net. A bird bander exclaims in the ecstatic tone used on sighting a shooting star—“Oh! This is a good one!”
With fingers as adept as a garden spider working its web, the bander extracts the tiny yellow bird with gentle care from a situation that would look hopeless to the untrained eye. Holding the golden creature up in the growing light, the bander says in awe, “It’s an ASY Mourning Warbler—male. A beauty!” (ASY is banding lingo for “after second year,” an age distinction banders make based on plumage characteristics.)
The wee warbler is taken back to the banding station in the hedgerow in a small cotton bag where it, along with a dozen other birds, is quickly processed by licensed bird banders. Feathers are scrutinized, wings are measured, weight is taken, giant Bible-looking books about plumage are pored over, and numbers are entered onto datasheets.
Before release, each bird is given a virtually weightless metal leg band with a unique 9-digit number. From then on, that bird’s information will forever be stored in the national Bird Banding Lab database, along with records of over 64 million birds and over 4 million recapture records since 1960.
Although newer technologies are on the rise—radio transmitting nanotags and satellite transmitters that give information about a bird’s whereabouts without having to have the bird in the hand—banding remains a safe and indispensable conservation tool. It’s essential for studying dispersal and migration, behavior and social structure, life-span and survival rate, reproductive success and population changes between years.
Peak Banding Season
During the fall migration bird-banding season—the busiest for Rushton and spanning August through November—the team captures and bands over a thousand birds of around 60 species. Many of these are birds of two worlds—some traveling hundreds of miles from the wild boreal forests of Canada to backyards in Guatemala, connecting your own yard to these distant destinations during their crucial days of rest.
This fascinating global nature of a bird’s life is what makes it vulnerable to 21st-century threats, like open oil pits (mistaken for water) and collisions with communication towers, buildings, power lines and wind turbines. Even cats—feral and domestic—kill an estimated 3 billion birds each year in the U.S. And, of course, habitat loss is the number one nightmare responsible for the loss of half the birds that filled our skies just 40 years ago.
Fortunately, all these human-created tolls can be minimized when people are educated.
Since fall 2009, Willistown Conservation Trust has been banding birds at its Rushton Woods Preserve and Farm to contribute to global bird conservation studies, while also teaching thousands of public visitors how we can all help. Rushton is a living demonstration of the importance of preserving land for wildlife and that habitat conservation should include people.
An Audubon-designated, globally significant Important Bird Area, Rushton grows about 30,000 pounds of wholesome food each year on just 4 acres within an 86-acre nature preserve. A host of sustainable practices eliminate the need for large-scale farm equipment and chemicals. Native wildflowers, trees and shrubs juxtaposed with the farm habitat encourage beneficial insects that feed birds and serve as natural pest control and effective crop pollinators. Many birds like orioles and saw-whet owls benefit from the hedgerow habitat that buffers the farm, as shown through banding.
Birds leave Rushton with permanent bands on their legs, and visitors leave with bands on their hearts—bands that remind them of their responsibility to help conserve these vanishing natural treasures.
Visitors may be inspired to plant native shrubs in their yard to offset their lawn footprint, take up birding as a hobby, buy sustainable shade-grown coffee to protect bird habitat in Latin America, put up a bird box, or join the Audubon Society or the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to stay abreast of conservation topics.
Come to Rushton Farm, marvel at our birds that are the pulse of life reverberating throughout the continent’s landscape, and live the banded life.
Willistown Conservation Trust is a nonprofit land trust that’s protected over 7,200 acres of wildlife habitat in the Willistown area. Its mission includes inspiring a lifelong love of the land through education. The Rushton Farm bird banding station in Newtown Square is open to the public through November. For information, WCTrust.org.