USGS Celebrates 100 Years of Bird Banding Lab

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Birds bring joy merely by their presence, from their bold colors and majestic songs to their grace as they glide through the sky. Birds contribute more than beauty to the environment and society. Many plants depend on hummingbirds and other species to pollinate them. Hawks and owls prey on rodents and other pests. Fruit- and grain-eating birds help spread plants’ seeds.

Activities such as bird watching and hunting, along with related tourism, also contribute to the economy. Approximately 45 million people participate in bird watching in the U.S. and $41 billion per year are spent on related trips and equipment alone. Hunting of migratory and upland game birds also brings billions of dollars to the economy.

Birds are also good indicators of environmental health because they are sensitive to habitat change. Changes in bird populations can indicate environmental stressors, such as impacts from extreme weather or human development, which could affect other parts of the ecosystem. For all of these reasons and others, researchers conduct avian conservation science.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of a program dedicated to that effort—the USGS Bird Banding Laboratory. The lab, now based at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland, was established in 1920 to study and help protect North American birds. The USGS laboratory issues permits for banding in the U.S., distributes aluminum bands—about 1 million a year—to participating scientists in the U.S. and Canada, and is a central repository for banding records in both countries.

Wisdom, the 65-year-old albatross and her chick, Kūkini

Wisdom, a Laysan albatross and the oldest known banded bird in the wild, with one of her chicks named Kūkini. (Photograph courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.)

How does bird banding help protect birds?

Scientists can keep track of individual birds by placing aluminum and/or colored bands on a bird’s legs. Each set of bands has a unique combination of colors and numbers. Every time a scientist bands a bird, he or she records the location and date as well as the bird’s species, gender, estimated age and other features, and sends that information to the lab. The capture and banding are done by highly-trained researchers to ensure the birds’ well-being. The USGS works with The North American Banding Council, which develops banding materials and addresses safety regulations.

USGS banding a songbird

USGS biologist Matthew Rogosky retrieving a songbird from a mist net before banding at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland. (Credit: Chelsea Steinbrecher-Hoffmann, USGS. Public domain.)

People who see or catch a banded bird report that information back to the lab, which keeps records of all reported encounters. Laboratory staffers manage more than 77 million archived banding records and more than 5 million bird encounter reports, with an average of nearly 1.2 million banding records and 100,000 encounter reports submitted each year.

“Scientists can tap this powerful archive of bird sighting information and combine it with other research tools to track birds’ behavior, migration, lifespans, populations, diseases and levels of environmental contaminants,” said Antonio Celis-Murillo, acting chief of the USGS Bird Banding Laboratory. “The archived information helps experts make important management and conservation decisions, which is especially important for the protection and recovery of endangered and threatened birds.”

“In the 100 years since the Bird Banding Laboratory was established, scientists have acquired an immense amount of data on the changing status and trends in bird populations, and they have documented movement patterns across the North America,” said Thomas O’Connell, center director for the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and Leetown Science Center. “Having long-term records is essential to seeing changes over time and learning about the state of the environment. The more we know about birds the better equipped land- and resource managers are to make the best decisions to protect them.”

What Scientists Learn by Banding

Examining the wing of a wood thrush

USGS biologist Matthew Rogosky examining the wing of a wood thrush at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland. (Credit: Chelsea Steinbrecher-Hoffmann, USGS. Public domain.)

Through banding research, scientists can learn a bird’s routine, such as where they spend most of the day, where they migrate, what they eat and how much habitat they need to feed and reproduce. This information can help identify priority areas for conservation.

Banding data can reveal other trends in life span and population. If there is a change in the age of birds caught at a certain location, life expectancy may be getting shorter or longer. The number of birds captured overall may indicate whether populations are increasing or in decline. Data such as weight and wingspan can show trends in overall health. Such insight can cue scientists to look for changes to birds’ food sources, predators, competitors, habitats or other factors that affect their survival and reproduction.

By sampling wild birds for diseases such as Lyme and avian influenza, scientists can help determine the diseases’ prevalence. Bird migration routes can identify which human and animal communities are at risk of exposure too. In toxicology research, banding data can also show birds’ potential exposure to contaminants or other environmental threats.

In addition, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other partners analyze banding information from game bird species each year to help set hunting regulations. This helps ensure healthy populations while allowing sustainable hunting opportunities.

Significant Findings in the Last 100 Years

Wild Flamingos

American Flamingo

American flamingo on the north shore of Puerto Rico. (Credit: Bill Hubick.)

“As a bird conservation organization, we use USGS Bird Banding Laboratory and other tracking data to help determine where we should be investing throughout the Americas to protect breeding, migration and wintering grounds,” said Matthew Jeffery, deputy director for the National Audubon Society's International Alliances Program. “One of the greatest success stories in the Caribbean has been the conservation of wild flamingos, and the laboratory’s data have been a critical piece of that effort.”

In 1950, there were about 5,000 wild flamingos in North America. Today there are more than 70,000. Conservation efforts include the creation of Inagua National Park in the Bahamas, which protected the birds’ breeding grounds. The laboratory’s data show that wild flamingos are living longer, a sign that management actions are working. The oldest known wild flamingo, at 49 years old, was identified through banding records. USGS data have also helped identify flamingo migration stops and wintering grounds that might warrant conservation.

Impacts of the Pesticide DDT

Bird banding records played a critical role in identifying the devastating effects of the pesticide DDT on some wild birds. The lab’s research uncovered a decline in some falcon species and bald eagles, sparking scientists at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and elsewhere to investigate. The pesticide was found at extremely high concentrations in the birds’ bodies and the worms they eat. DDT alters the way certain birds metabolize calcium, resulting in thin eggshells that crack or break under the weight of an incubating bird, causing reproductive failure. This research helped lead to the ban of DDT in the United States more than 40 years ago.

Oldest Known Banded Bird

USGS data helped discover the oldest known banded bird in the wild. Wisdom, a female Laysan albatross, is at least 69 years old and nests on Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, a remote Pacific Island. Scientists used to think the life span of the Laysan albatross was 12 to 40 years, but they now know these seabirds can live much longer and nest successfully for many years, since Wisdom has raised chicks into her 60s.

This insight informs management decisions to protect habitat and resources for albatross and other seabirds. While Laysan albatross populations have grown in recent years, they still face threats. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge, is working to establish new colonies on other Pacific islands to help protect the birds against rising sea levels, disease and invasive predators.

Hunting Regulations for Wood Ducks

Nesting wood duck

Nesting wood duck near Violette's Lock along the C&O Canal, Maryland. (Credit: Bill Hubick.)

“Banding data have been central to establishing hunting regulations for many migratory game birds,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Pam Garrettson. Wood ducks are a good example. These beautiful waterfowl are hard to detect in aerial surveys because they live in forested areas and often can’t be seen from above. Habitat loss and overexploitation led to their decline in the late 1800s. They were federally protected from hunting between 1918 and 1940, and restrictions remained relatively conservative as their populations recovered and increased.

“By using USGS Bird Banding Laboratory data, we were able to understand more about wood duck survival and the impacts of hunting on northern- and southern-breeding birds. This helped us better predict whether they could tolerate additional harvest before we considered additional bag limit increases,” Garrettson said.

Avian Influenza in Blue-Winged Teal

Blue-winged teal

Blue-winged teal at Green Cay Wetlands, Florida. (Credit: Bill Hubick.)

USGS scientists are involved in a banding project to track the migration patterns of blue-winged teal, which are among the waterfowl vulnerable to avian influenza. The research focuses on blue-winged teal due to their widespread distribution and suspected role in spreading avian influenza viruses. By tracking their movements, scientists can identify which areas are more prone to disease transmission, particularly among wild birds and domestic poultry.

Working with Partners, Using New Methods

The Bird Banding Laboratory is part of a network of collaborators. It was created in 1920 after ratification of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act with the United Kingdom and administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The lab was moved under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when the agency was established in 1940, transferred to the National Biological Service in 1993 and moved to the USGS in 1996.

The U.S. and Canada coordinate their banding work through the North American Bird Banding Program, jointly administered by the USGS lab and the Canadian Wildlife Service Bird Banding Office.

The USGS lab works with special educators through Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools to provide job training to young adults with cognitive and other disabilities. Students scan and catalogue bird banding records that were made on paper between 1960 to 2000. By digitizing these records, the students are making a significant contribution to data preservation.

While the Bird Banding Laboratory’s research focuses on North America, birds are banded across the world, and the laboratory has collaborative efforts with other countries.

Citizens have also helped compile the immense amount of data that makes the laboratory’s records so valuable. Anyone who sees a banded bird can be a citizen scientist by reporting the sighting through www.reportband.gov.

In addition to more traditional banding, the USGS and partners are working on new techniques, such as using satellite transmitters to track bird movements over large landscapes. 

Future Events and Presentations

The USGS will be hosting an array of celebratory events and presentations later this year on the lab and banding science underway. Please check the lab’s website periodically for updated information.

Ovenbird being banded

Ovenbird being banded at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland. (Credit: Chelsea Steinbrecher-Hoffmann, USGS. Public domain.)

Albatross named Wisdom

Two Laysan albatross. Wisdom, the oldest known of the species, is pictured in front. Both birds have aluminum and plastic bands for tracking. (Credit: Kiah Walker, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.)