To Band or Not to Band, that is the question

Like many bird observatories, the Missouri River Bird Observatory began as a bird-banding station. From 2009 to 2013, we monitored spring migration by mist-netting and banding birds at Grand Pass Conservation Area in northern Saline County, MO.  Our banding station was about 60 meters from the Missouri River, which quickly became our namesake.  Over the years, we also operated fall migration stations, shorebird banding studies, and several MAPS stations (Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship; a protocol for studying breeding birds and the recruitment of young). 

Over time, we found that we could cover a lotmore ground and gather a lot more data that answered conservation-focused questions by doing surveys in which we count birds detected by sight and sound. Surveys are also far less invasive to birds than banding, which can be quite stressful for captured birds of most species. Therefore MRBO progressed from primarily using banding as a scientific method to using point counts and line-transect surveys.  The organization now covers about 45 prairie sites, 60 wetland sites and 5-10 forest sites each year, documenting all birds seen and heard.  We also locate and monitor the nests of prairie birds on Wah’Kon-Tah and Taberville Prairie Conservation Areas.

For some bird observatories, the situation is very different.  For example, observatories located in migratory bottlenecks such as the Great Lakes shoreline can gather enough information via migration banding to answer very important conservation questions.  Also, for certain scientific studies, capturing birds is the only method that will suffice to gather data – such as studies that use telemetry to determine the exact migratory pathway and stopover points of a species.  This information is extremely important to land managers who are conserving and improving habitat throughout a species’ entire migratory route. 

For MRBO’s purposes of monitoring fluctuations in bird populations statewide, with a focus on Missouri’s most imperiled habitats, and measuring those populations’ responses to land management, banding proved to be an inadequate tool.  However, we still use banding as an education and outreach tool, having found that seeing Missouri’s native birds “up close and personal” to be an inspiring experience for people of all ages.  MRBO’s Northern Saw-whet Owl banding station and our Backyard Banding program bring the birds-in-hand experience to people all over the state.  The Backyard Banding program also has a Citizen Science component that allows MRBO to examine the longevity of familiar backyard species and the winter site fidelity of migrants.  We run these banding operations very carefully to minimize stress on the birds while providing audiences with important information regarding Missouri’s birds, their habitats and their conservation. 

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