Colour-coding chickadees

Edit: This post was recently included in the 69th edition of I and the Bird, a blog carnival focusing on, you guessed it, birds. You can check out the full edition at Living the Scientific Life.

Colour-banded Black-capped Chickadee

Yesterday afternoon Blackburnian and I went out birding in a tract of woods near Paris, Ontario. It wasn’t a large patch, but was still perhaps 8 or 10 acres, and we spent some time wandering through it. There was very little activity in most of it, which is typical of woodlands in the winter. Although in spring and early summer the woods can be alive with birdsong, once the migrants depart in the fall there are very few birds left that favour that sort of habitat. Woodpeckers, chickadees in small flocks, perhaps the odd tree sparrow or junco in the scrubby bits if you’re lucky. But pretty quiet.

Northern Cardinal

The best places to see birds in the winter is near a feeder, which is part of the reason I don’t do a lot of birding in the wintertime – when all the birds are coming to you, where you can view them from the comfort of your home, why go out into the cold to wander around an empty woodland? Of course, there’s lots else to see in the woods, but I usually reserve those outings for warmer days with lovely weather. The place we were at yesterday had a section of boardwalk where a few feeders had been set up, and kept regularly stocked. Although they were visited predominantly by Black-capped Chickadees, there were also Dark-eyed Juncos, American Tree Sparrows, Northern Cardinals and both Red- and White-breasted Nuthatches visiting them.

Feeding the chickadees

Like at a lot of parks with bird-feeding trails, the chickadees and nuthatches had learned to come to people’s outstretched hands to pick up seed. This is an absolute delight for small children, and even for adults there’s some magic in a wild creature coming to your hand with enough trust to take a bite of food. Although we hadn’t thought to bring any seed with us, we borrowed a few seeds from one of the feeders and offered them to the chickadees. And the chickadees were quite happy to take them.

Colour-banded Black-capped Chickadee

Just nearby is Wrigley Corners Outdoor Education Centre. As part of their education and research programs, they have been banding the chickadees that come to the feeders here in the park. They use a combination of bands, both silver aluminum and coloured plastic ones, to create a unique colour combination that can be easily visually identified at a distance. This allows you to follow individual birds to learn more about their behaviour patterns and movements. No two birds in a study are ever given the same band combination, unless it’s known the previous owner of a combination is deceased. Band colours are read from top to bottom, with the bird’s left leg first, then the right. So the bird at the top of this post would be Red-Orange:Silver-Green. The above bird would be Silver-Pink:Blue-Blue.

Colour-banded Black-capped Chickadee

Here Silver-Red:Yellow-Yellow surveys the proffered seeds before coming down. The bands circle the bird’s leg much the way you or I would wear a watch, or a bracelet; they aren’t attached to the bird’s body, and they cause it no discomfort or inconvenience. Although it takes the bird a few minutes to get used to this new addition, it quickly moves on with foraging for food, or whatever else is on its daily agenda, and isn’t bothered by it again.

Colour-banded Black-capped Chickadee

And, as you can tell by these birds still coming to peoples’ hands, the process of having the band put on hasn’t caused them any real distress. Most birds are banded and measured, and then safely released within a minute or two. In addition to the coloured bands, the silver band has a 9-digit number that also uniquely identifies the bird in a national database, should it ever decide to wander and someone else encounters it. This number is also useful for identifying birds without colour bands if they’re captured again (it’s too small to read from afar on most birds), and particularly for migrant birds that may turn up somewhere else on the continent.

Colour-banded Black-capped Chickadee

Colour bands are most often used on studies of birds on territory; that is, birds that aren’t moving around a lot. By banding the breeding birds of a particular species in a forest plot, say, you can track how many individuals there are, who owns what territory, what males are mating with what females, how far birds are foraging from their nests, and other interesting and valuable information. The data collected from such projects is used in making decisions about conservation practices to protect the birds and the habitats they live in. Similar studies take place with birds on their wintering grounds. Even though we didn’t spend a lot of time with them yesterday, we were still able to make some observations, such with as the above bird, Red-Orange:Silver-Green. In the above photo, s/he (both sexes look the same) was about 20 metres down the trail from where the first photo of the post was taken. Ordinarily I would probably have thought they were a completely different set of birds, but obviously they were moving around the area – seeing if other peoples’ offerings were any better, I guess!