Do you wear jewelry? Is there a piece that you wear all the time that you no longer notice wearing? Maybe a ring or bracelet? Does this item help proclaim something about you? Maybe it’s a wedding band or a diabetes bracelet. Maybe it’s even a fitbit or just a hair tie. Maybe you wear only one item or maybe it’s an entire armful of bangle bracelets.
This same basic concept is what bird bands are, except that these bands are extremely important and used to identify individual birds. Bird bands have been used for hundreds of years and have led to a large portion of the bird knowledge we have today. Today, every banded bird in the USA receives an official USGS birding banding lab registered, number engraved, aluminum band. This number acts as the bird’s social security number and no other bird will ever be assigned to it. It is through the use of bird bands that we can follow migratory birds throughout the year. We can distinguish between non-migratory birds and how they act throughout the year. We can follow individuals throughout their life or throughout the world. Bands have allowed us to ask questions that may otherwise be impossible to answer as well as allowed us to learn about birds on an individual, group, species, and general animal level.
It is estimated that 96-98% of the Great Lakes population is banded and therefore able to be extensively monitored every year. If you’re in the Great Lakes area or somewhere on their wintering grounds, look for orange! Banded piping plovers that are part from the Great Lakes are easy to identify because orange is the unique color band identifier for this population.
GLPIPL chicks are banded between five and fifteen days old. This is typical for shorebirds and even other types of birds, such as songbirds like chickadees and catbirds. Being precocial (GLPIPL chicks fluff up and are running around, feeding themselves within hours of hatching), these chicks are born to run. Their legs are the full grown width and may length as they mature, but are otherwise fully developed. This allows them to run both to get food and to avoid predation. Having well developed legs allows us to band them at a young age with extremely minimal impact on them. The bands we use are made of either plastic or aluminum materials, which makes them extremely lightweight and non-irritable to the birds legs.
Every sibling in a family gets the same color and arrangement of three or four bands (depending on the combination used). This is considered a “brood combination”. The reason the chicks from the same family, or brood, get the same combination is to make it easier to study such things as parental success, fledging rates, and return success. There also are not enough combinations to give every chick their own unique identifier from hatching. We use specific colors to identify breeding areas so we can almost instantly tell where a chick hatched. Due this, we also usually need to repeat brood combos every couple of years.
Thus, to keep track of the individual chicks (up to four per brood), there are other unique identifiers for individual chicks. Today, the GLPIPL banding crew puts one of four colored dots (red, blue, green, or yellow) on the orange bands. Most combinations also include a colored numbered band with three digits on it. It is the pairing of colored dot and number that allow us to tell the chicks apart both among broods and among years. Without the dot and number, then we must wait until we are able to read the metal band to know exactly who the bird is.
Once a GLPIPL chick becomes an adult and a breeder in the Great Lakes, they get rebanded. This time the bird gets their orange band replaced with a plain (not alphanumeric as is used in other places for piping plovers such as the Bahamas) orange flag and a new, unique to them color combo. Thus, each adult that contributes to the population gets marked in a way that distinguishes them from every other GLPIPL. Once an adult bird has their unique combo they are not recaptured again. Only observations are made on these birds in subsequent years. This is to reduce disturbances and interactions with the birds as much as possible. Though they are handled and banded twice in their life, the research being done on these birds is incredibly low impact and done in a way to reduce the number of human-plover interactions had.
The banding crew is made up of trained professionals. We also are approved and follow all Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) guidelines as well as hold both state and federal bird banding permits. The safety and best interest of the birds is always the first priority. We guarantee that while the act of banding may be intrusive or stressful to the birds, the bands themselves do not largely impact the birds. Multiple studies have supported that the reproductive success, flight ability, overall well being of the bird, survival*, and more are not significantly influenced by wearing one or multiple bands.