To date we have only banded birds from our second colony where the presence of horses creates a substantial population of large dipterans. I have seen adults delivering very large flies to their young and this perhaps contributes to their good health and high weights. Shortly we will begin banding nestlings at SpruceHaven where the barn is closed and there are no livestock. It will be informative to compare weights of birds banded at the same age to see whether the Sprucehaven birds are on average smaller.
When we retrieve the birds from the nests we use a shoe box lined with a piece of fabric, courtesy of Miriam. A clean piece of material is used for each nest so that any potential for cross contamination is eliminated. Since these healthy youngsters tend to squirm around quite a bit, we place them in a little plastic cup to weigh them, zeroing out the weight of the cup of course.
The dogs are a reliable audience but on a hot day they are content to simply lie around on the cool concrete floor.
This was the clutch from the first nest we banded yesterday.
Kevin handles these tiny creatures with a care that would do a human father proud. The welfare of the birds is our primary concern and we treat the babies in as delicate a manner as we can.
Once deposited in a cup they are ready for the weigh-in and they keep still for at least a moment while we complete that task.
The parent birds watch the whole operation quietly and are back to feeding their young almost as soon as we have returned them to the nest. Before we leave we check around every nest to make sure that no youngsters have wriggled free.
The horses are eternally curious about everything that is going on and are happy to have a ladder to chew on and a couple of friendly humans to pet them.
We have to make sure they don't nudge the ladder while we are standing on it. In a shoving match between one of us and a 500kg horse the horse is going to win every time!
As one might well imagine, readily available horse hair is used by the Barn Swallows to line their nests, but it can sometimes create a problem when the young birds become entangled in it. More than once I am sure we have saved the life of a nestling that was hopelessly bound up in horse hair.
Kevin carefully extracts the birds from the nest while I hold the ladder.
He is a study in concentration.
And we carefully replace the birds in the nest as quickly as possible after we have processed them.
On to nest No. 41 and a repeat of the same process.
In no time at all they are at the banding station.
And Kevin proceeds as before.
Before completing this post I would like to share with you a story about bird banding recently recounted to me by Greg Michalenko. Greg is a retired professor from the University of Waterloo, and is one of those very special mentors who leave a lifelong impression on his students. I have talked to several people who were fortunate enough to enjoy his leadership and inspirational style and that sentiment has been universally expressed.
In his own words, here is Greg's narrative:
I know the thrill of netting a bird with a band. I used to do a field course on the Bruce in late August and included a visit to the banding operation at the south end of the park. On one visit the students went out with the net checkers and returned to the banding hut. The bander, a very gentle and shy man from Québec, went through his measurements and attentions to each socked bird in turn and let them go. It came to the last bird of the morning, a Black-and-white Warbler; it already had a band. He said, "I can tell by the number that it's one of ours but will have to check with the record on the computer files for specifics." He went into his computer. His back was towards us. Then he swivelled his chair and sat facing us with a strange look on his face. Eventually he spoke in a very low voice."This bird was banded here eight years ago. It winters in the Caribbean. That means it has made sixteen passages of three thousand kilometres each. It weighs only eleven grams, less than half an ounce. Yet it has flown the equivalent of going right around the planet."
The students were hushed, amazed. I realized that I was witnessing one of those very rare learning moments of great depth. The afternoon was scheduled for swimming, hiking, exploring. The students were unusually quiet all day, but not subdued. They had been charmed, a great truth had been revealed.
When I tucked into my tent that night I thought, "Teaching can be so rewarding."
In life you have many experiences, meet many people, and once in a rare while, if you are very fortunate, you meet someone who leaves an imprint. Greg Michalenko is one of those people.