Students from Hampstead Hill Academy participated in Urban Nestwatch, a program which pairs middle school students with ornithologists from the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.
In Patterson Park last week, students helped bird experts search for and capture birds; each bird was fitted with a color-coded band around its leg before being released.
“The object of the program is to connect kids with nature, and do that by having kids see a bird in the hand,” said Milu Karp of the Smithsonian.
Erin Reed of the Patterson Park Audubon Center helped put the program in touch with Hampstead Hill Academy, and participated in the onsite activities.
“We reached out to the middle school, because that’s an age group we don’t normally interact with in Audubon,” she said.
The kids searched for birds along the boardwalk that partially surrounds the Patterson Park Boat Lake. After a few students correctly identify the cattails growing in the marsh, they asked if they could take one.
“I like to say, ‘Take only pictures; leave only footprints,’” said Reed.
“Awwwww….” said the students.
Reed explained that beyond the educational aspect, the project also analyzes the health of local birds. A healthy bird indicates a healthy habitat, “and that is a good sign for us, because if it’s a healthy habitat for birds, it’s healthy for us, too,” she said.
With a Grey Catbird in her hand, Smithsonian ornithologist Mandy Talpas engaged the students:
“I like to call birds bio-indicators,” she said. “They indicate to me how healthy and how clean the environment is.”
The Smithsonian team checked the birds and recorded their sexes, sizes, fatness, and foot sizes.
“How do you think I’m going to be able to tell if it’s a male or female?” Talpas bravely asked the middle schoolers.
Hands shot up, but the answers were PG enough.
“A female with a nest will have missing feathers on its body,” revealed Talpas.
She told the students that each captured bird will be banded with its own unique identifying number, “just like you boys and girls have your own Social Security numbers.”
A student asked if banding was “like surgery.”
“No, it’s not like surgery,” replied Talpas. “It’s just like putting a bracelet or watch on.”
It seems to make sense to band and otherwise permanently identify individual animals of an endangered species. But does banding common birds, of which there are billions, work? Are the banded birds ever seen again?
Karp says that there is about a 1- or 2-percent recapture rate for songbirds. For birds of prey, that rate is greater, 10- to 15-percent.
Talpas told the students that most birds—over 50 percent—die before they are a year old.
“That’s OK,” commented Reed. “Their only goal in life is to successfully breed, so if they do that, they’re OK.”
Talpas opened the floor to questions, and the students had some good ones.
“How much do you get paid?” a girl asked.
by Erik Zygmont