Many people are aware ranchers, researchers and government agencies tag everything from livestock animals to mountain lions and bears. But what people might not be aware that the State of South Dakota has tagged and tracked songbirds for nearly 30 years.
The South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department began its songbird banding project in 1992 with a Farm Island Nature Area station to document their cottonwood forest habitats usage along the Missouri River during spring and fall migrations.
Department spokesman Nick Harrington said these habitats have continued to decline in the more than 50 years since Lake Sharpe’s creation.
“In the spring of 2004, we opened a second banding station at Fisherman Point, located within the Oahe Downstream Recreation Area,” Harrington said. “The year 2011 was the exception to the consecutive string of spring and fall banding sessions when extreme flooding prevented access to the sites.”
The first step is to capture the birds safely. Crews start with setting up very fine “mist” nets, which they watch closely. While the traps could capture other small animals, they are not strong enough to capture large animals or humans.
“Because we are working in publicly accessible areas, we remove all nets and related materials every day, so we don’t catch nocturnal species such as owls or bats,” senior wildlife diversity biologist Eileen Dowd Stukel said. “We have occasionally caught turkeys and ducklings and have had pheasants hit and likely tear through nets without being caught. We’ve also had deer, dogs, and people tear through nets.”
Sometimes visitors approach the researchers with concerns about the birds’ safety.
“As with any effort to sample or trap fish or wildlife, there can be injuries or deaths no matter how careful you are, but bird banding is a highly regulated activity that requires extensive preparation, experience, and detailed record-keeping,” Dowd Stukel said.
Harrington added that bird banding is a safe practice when properly conducted.
Although bird banding can sound fun, it’s an ongoing learning process and not an easily learned task.
Silka Kempema is one of the wildlife biologists with Game, Fish and Parks who bands migratory songbirds in the Pierre and Fort Pierre area.
“Banding migratory songbirds is challenging,” Kempema said. “My skills as a bird bander are improved each season I set up mist nets and band birds. Each season I become more knowledgeable about species that migrate through our area and even those that breed in our area. Each season I learn something new about a species or the technique, and each season I find out I still have lots to learn.”
Game, Fish and Parks wildlife biologist Casey Heimerl also found it takes time to get bird banding right and build the necessary skills.
“It has been a rigorous process to become a competent bird bander, requiring knowledge of safe handling practices in addition to being able to determine species, sex and ages of the birds we capture,” she said. “The learning process never ends. I am still picking up new information every banding season.”
Heimerl added bird banding is an excellent way to drum up more public involvement in their work, especially regarding non-game species.
“Many people have probably observed sparrows or finches in their backyard, but to see one up close brings another level of respect and appreciation for the species,” she said.
Dowd Stukel found banding should ideally have two people involved. But when the sites typically have few birds at any given time, she said a single experienced bander could usually handle things.
“If we are experiencing higher volume than usual, we have several strategies to make sure bird safety is the top priority,” Dowd Stukel said. “We can call in more help. We can push up nets as we empty them to make sure we catch up. We can release birds without banding them. We also monitor the weather to avoid banding when conditions may turn cold and windy or become very hot. Our goal is to minimize the time birds are in the nets or waiting for banding.”
And on those busy days, a second experienced bander helps reduce the time birds spend in the nets.
Birdwatchers and enthusiasts could learn much through volunteering and getting hands-on experience under expert supervision.
Dowd Stukel said they welcome visitors interested in seeing birds up-close and learning about banding as a monitoring technique. She said researchers had even allowed visitors to release a bird before when safety permitted it.
“Otherwise, we do not allow visitors to touch birds in the net or handle them,” Dowd Stukel said.
The banding period ranges from late April to early June in the spring and late August to mid-October in the fall.
Game, Fish and Parks use a passive operation — lacking lures or baits. The researchers identify species, sex and age. They also take several measurements and band each bird with a uniquely numbered band on its leg before sending them on their way.
Recaptured birds get recorded, weighed and examined for fat deposits.
“There are definitely banded birds still in these areas. Many species live much longer than you might expect,” Dowd Stukel said. “We use a resource on the USGS Bird Banding Lab site that allows us to compare our recaptures with known longevity data.”
Information gathered through the banding project is wide-ranging. In 2016, there was a comprehensive 25-year report on the effort, which Dowd Stukel said helps researchers identify trends.
“These days, long-term data sets are increasingly rare, and we feel lucky to have been able to continue this project as long as we have to contribute to knowledge of migratory birds and to document the importance of these two small areas of habitat for migratory and resident birds,” she said. “From our long-term data set we have been able to gather valuable information such as changes in species composition over time or the impacts of major events like the 2011 flood.”
Dowd Stukel said they speculated the scouring of vegetation and shifting sandy areas might have benefited weedy annual plants, which might have helped some species in the fall of 2012.
“Examples are Lincoln’s Sparrow and Clay-colored Sparrow,” she said. “European Starlings are fairly common at Farm Island, particularly along the river. We catch almost none of the area’s invasive species, such as starlings, Eurasian Collared-Doves, and House Sparrows, at these two sites.”
The team also records hybrids — a cross between two species — and intergrades — a cross between two subspecies — Harrington said.
“Bird banding is an extremely valuable tool used by wildlife biologists that help us learn a wide variety of information on songbirds using these sites, including life spans, fidelity to breeding locations, migration timing and impacts of changing habitats to bird populations,” Heimerl said.
And banding songbirds is providing researchers with valuable data on both the birds and their environment.
“Bird banding provides the basic biological information needed to effectively conserve a species such as life span and movement — dispersal and migration,” Kempema said. “Long-term banding stations such as ours help paint a more detailed picture of how birds are responding to changes in the environment. Banding stations also provide the cooperation and skill needed for large-scale research projects that require data that is collected from birds that are in-hand — i.e. feather or blood samples.”