This year we mark the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty that was signed on Aug. 16, 1916. This Migratory Bird Treaty, and three others that followed, form the cornerstones of our efforts to conserve birds that migrate across international borders.
In celebration of the centennial, we are sharing a series of Backyard Birding blogs, written by USFWS volunteer and enthusiastic birder, Lee Halasz. Celebrating the centennial of the first treaty allows us to bring together those who have contributed to its success, and to galvanize efforts to protect migratory birds for generations to come.
By Lee Halasz
Lee Halasz is a native of Australia and is a former conservation professional with the Queensland State Government. He and his family now reside in western Massachusetts, and he volunteered his time with us in 2015. This spring, we feature a series of bird stories Lee wrote to celebrate #birdyear.
Have you ever wanted to catch and tag birds right in your own backyard? With the help of the Smithsonian Institution?
That’s exactly what my daughter and I did, and it was a fantastic experience.
One morning a couple of springs ago, my then six-year-old daughter was feeling like she might be getting sick and, since it was the end of a long school year, I let her stay home.
Coincidentally, that day I was having a visit from the Springfield chapter of Neighborhood Nestwatch, a citizen science program run by the Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. Forest Service. The program investigates the survival of birds and their nesting success in people’s yards by involving citizens in collecting information about birds. Through this involvement people gain a greater appreciation and understanding of their local birds.
My daughter had previously shown a minor interest in birds so I was curious to see what she would think of this experience.
Helping Catch – and Release – Some Backyard Birds
After some quick introductions, the staff got to work with setting up ‘mist nets’ made of almost-invisible fine black mesh. If a bird flies into the net, it falls into a ‘pouch’ in the net, where it can safely and easily be picked up and handled. The calls of several target bird species, including black-capped chickadee, northern cardinal and song sparrow, were played nearby in the hope of luring in local individuals of those species.
We were soon catching birds, and it was amazing to be able to see them up close and in detail. Individuals of the target species had colored bands placed on their legs, to allow them to be recognized by me (and others) in the future, just through casual observation rather than having to recapture them.
I knew of a few nests in our yard, and the staff set up data sheets for me to continue observing and recording those nests, and any I others I found.
Inspiring Local Bird Conservation
My daughter was taken under the wing (so to speak) by one of the staff, who took her around checking the nets and talking to her about birds. She was even able to release several birds, including a hummingbird, by having them placed on their backs in her hand.
Well, my daughter was inspired. Afterwards she wanted her own bird field guide, and in the following weeks she would look up any birds she saw. The ultimate experience came one day when I found a dead black-billed cuckoo. I showed it to her and was about to bury it when she shouted, “It has a band!” We contacted the U.S. Bird Banding Laboratory with the number on the band, and were told it was caught just two weeks earlier on the Canadian side of Lake Erie, apparently a very curious migration pattern.
During the breeding season our local pair of cardinals (both banded during the visit) had five nests. While two nests failed (the eggs didn’t hatch), the mid-spring nest fledged three chicks, and two later nests each fledged a single chick.
The visit was a fantastic morning immersed in birds. I have been able to confirm that many of the banded birds survived into the next year and beyond, but it appears the male cardinal did not. There is a new male flying around with the banded female though…maybe more nests will be in our future.
How To Get Involved in the Neighborhood Nestwatch
If you love birding and have ever observed a bird nest in your own backyard, you can help scientists in their effort to understand how well backyard birds are doing. Visit the program’s website to find out how you can get involved – early spring is the perfect time to register and start looking for nests.
Join us next week for another Backyard Birding post featuring the American Woodcock!