A Weekend with the Birds (and the Bird Banders)

October 12, 2010 at 2:08 pm 11 comments


A tufted titmouse, freshly banded by the Penn State crew.

I know this past weekend was Homecoming and all, but I spent most of it thinking about birds. I mean, I watched the football game like everyone else, but … well, let’s not talk about that.

On both Friday morning and Sunday morning, I got up extra early and headed out to the edge of the Arboretum at Penn State to meet up with grad student Emily Thomas ’07a, ’09 and a small group of undergrads—all of them from the wildlife and fisheries science program—to watch them band birds.

I had seen a bird-banding operation once before, on a trip to Alaska, but that was a brief encounter. I thought it would be fun to hang out for a longer time, see a lot of different birds, and take a lot photos. And I was right: It was quite cool.


Emily Thomas fits the bird with an ID band using special banding pliers.

The way bird banding works is this: The volunteers stretch big “mist nets” (sort of like badminton nets, only much taller and longer) in various sites, then wait for birds to accidentally fly into them and get tangled up. Every half hour, the volunteers do a “net check” to see if they’ve caught anything. If they have, they untangle each bird, put it in a drawstring pouch, and bring it back to a central location to be fitted with a tiny ID band. After a bird has been banded, the volunteers do some assessments—they measure its length and wing size, figure out whether it’s a male or female, estimate its age, stuff like that.

One of the more interesting parts of the checkup is when the volunteer puts the bird on its back and blows gently on its stomach feathers to expose the skin underneath. If the skin is reddish, the bird is probably a local resident. If there’s yellowish fat present, the bird is probably in the midst of a migratory journey.


An Eastern towhee bites at undergrad Dave Cornman as he untangles it from the mist net.

Once the volunteers are done with the bird, they lower it to the ground and let it fly off. Interestingly, most birds don’t seem to mind the banding experience; they’re pretty calm about the whole thing. There are definite exceptions, though: Tufted titmice are feisty, bitey little buggers. So are chickadees. (“If chickadees were our size,” Emily told me, “they would rule the world, hands down.”)


Experienced bird banders can "read" a bird's feathers to assess its age. This is a Northern mockingbird.

Anyway, as Emily explained to me, experience in capturing and banding birds is invaluable to wildlife and fisheries science undergrads—it really helps them in the job market—but it’s hard for students to get that experience. Emily, who is just finishing her master’s degree, is one of the few people around here who have a banding permit, and she’s happy to teach banding to as many students as are willing to show up at sunrise and help. She runs the small operation one or two days each weekend during the fall migration season—so far she’s done it 14 times since the end of August—and has plans to do it again in the spring.

This past Friday morning, when I went out to watch for the first time, proved to be the most productive day of the fall so far: 50 birds (13 different species) caught and banded. I had such a blast watching and taking photos that I decided to go back on Sunday morning, when the group caught another 22 birds (nine species).


Emily Thomas holds a newly banded ruby-crowned kinglet so undergrad Alex Lamoreaux can get a photo.

I learned so much about birds in those two sessions. I learned just how tiny a ruby-crowned kinglet is—in fact, I got to hold one in my hand. I learned that some young birds have something called a “gape”— a brightly-colored area behind their mouth that’s designed to attract Mom’s attention and get them fed. (The presence or absence of a gape helps banders gauge the bird’s age—either “hatch year” or “after hatch year.”) I learned that younger towhees have brown eyes, while red eyes are a sign of an adult.

And, maybe most interesting of all, I learned that there are some students at Penn State who are so into birds that they will show up at dawn to work with them. Not because they’re getting paid (they’re not), not because they’re getting course credit (they’re not), but just … well, just because.

You can see an album of photos I took at the bird banding sessions here.

Tina Hay, editor

Entry filed under: University Park. Tags: , , , , , , , , .

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11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Ted D.  |  October 12, 2010 at 3:11 pm

    Next bird banding should be conducted on the Bear Patch ranch!

  • 2. Marcey  |  October 14, 2010 at 1:52 am

    Looks like you all had a blast! You’re doing a great thing :)

  • 3. Anonymous  |  October 20, 2010 at 7:52 am

    great photos

  • 4. More Birds, Close-Up « The Penn Stater Magazine  |  November 12, 2010 at 3:33 pm

    […] bird-banding sessions that grad student Emily Thomas ’07a, ’09 had been running since the end of August officially […]

  • 5. Tony Horanzy  |  December 5, 2010 at 4:41 pm

    tufted titmouse,I am seeing banded birds in Webster Massachusetts.The birds have been feeding on Black sunflower oil seeds. 12/ 01/2010 . Douglas state forest woods .
    The birds looked very healthy and very quick going back & forth eating the seeds back to the tree limbs in the forest.I can’t make out the number of the bands.I was wondering does Massachusetts band them also,or are these birds from Penn State.

  • 6. Tony Horanzy  |  December 5, 2010 at 4:56 pm


  • 7. Bullfrog  |  December 5, 2010 at 4:59 pm

    yeap they are there a whole flock of them

  • 8. Redtail hawk  |  December 5, 2010 at 5:20 pm

    Yummy they was so good to eat,fill with seeds to nice and plump they was.thank you
    I will tell all my bird friends about it

  • 9. Birds Up-Close « The Penn Stater Magazine  |  September 24, 2012 at 7:33 pm

    […] to watch the banding process and to photograph birds up-close. I wrote about the experience here and […]

  • […] more about bird banding at the Arboretum, you might take a look at my previous stories and photos here, here, and here. The fall sessions continue through the Oct. 25; you can download a PDF of the […]

  • 11. Headshots—of Birds | The Penn Stater Magazine  |  October 19, 2016 at 1:12 pm

    […] of the bird-banding program offered by the Arboretum at Penn State. (I’ve written about it here, here, and here.) Under the direction of volunteer Nick Kerlin ’71, who has both a state and […]

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