One of my favorite things in the whole world is teaching people how to band and measure songbirds. There is something magical about handling a live bird; people connect with the organisms in a way that leads them to appreciate birds more, both in the hand and in the bush. Additionally, it’s way easier to explain things like topography, anatomy, and molt with a live specimen than with diagrams or sad study skins.
However, there is one part of the process I dread: the first time someone puts an aluminum band on a bird. The pliers are heavy and sticky and unwieldy, the birds are small and fragile, and it’s surprisingly difficult to explain in the heat of the moment. While I’ve become better at teaching proper banding the last few years, it’s always stressful, and I still struggle with it.
I have resolved to make it so that I never again explain this haphazardly in the field. So, for anyone working with me in the future (or anyone who is using size 0A bird bands), here’s Dan’s quick and easy guide to properly placing an aluminum band on a small songbird, specifically a Golden-winged Warbler.
Set the scene: you have successfully caught a Golden-winged Warbler! You are a champion! A pro! An ornithologist of repute!
Now, you want to keep track of your birds. The USGS Bird Banding Laboratory has been gracious enough to grant you permits and a string of aluminum bands, each of which has a unique 9-digit number on it. Golden-winged Warblers take one of the smallest sizes: 0A.
Your first step is to place the warbler safely in the bander’s grip, with the leg-to-band firmly held between your thumb and forefinger, and the other leg controlled by your middle, ring and/or pinky fingers.
Once you have the bird secured, place the band desired on the upper prongs of the pliers, and open it until wide enough to fit onto the tarsus. Make sure the seam of the band faces forward to help preserve the band’s shape.
Now, place it on the bird’s tarsus.
And that’s it, right? Slip it on the leg, clamp down, and walk away, so proud of your successful banding?
YOU DID NOT DO IT RIGHT AND YOU ARE HORRIBLE. If you’re f**king lucky, the band is properly on the leg. More likely, it’s totally crooked. Smaller band sizes warp horribly when you open them (particularly with beat-up pliers, which are really the only kind anyone has), even when you’re careful. When you re-seal warped bands, they usually are crooked or–my nightmare and motivation for writing this guide–they can overlap on themselves.
This overlap means trouble for your bird. It can slowly abrade the bird’s leg (a recipe for infection). It will likely cut off circulation, leading to nasty edema.
This problem is unlikely to go away on its own. Your bird might get by for a while once its leg falls off, but it will be unsuccessful at reproduction and eventually succumb to infection, starvation or exhaustion. It will die, miserable and alone. Because of you.
If you’re lucky, you’ll be banding with someone who can fix this. The first time I overlapped a band, a friend and mentor spent 15 minutes with very fine-tipped pliers correcting it. Another time, a coworker snipped away at an overlapped band on a edematous leg with nail trimmers and until it came free and circulation was restored.
Good news: this never has to be you, provided you do the following. When you’re placing the band on the bird’s leg, close it slowly, but do not seal it all the way. Leave it open a few millimeters, the gap not quite large enough fall off of the bird’s tarsus.
Check the band–is it smooth and circular and beautiful? Does it move on the bird’s tarsus without catching? HURRAY! YOU’RE A BANDING WIZARD! Now color-band and measure your bird, release it back into its territory, and enjoy knowing who it is for seasons to come!