ROGERS (AP) — A tiny band the size of a pencil point can reveal big information if it’s attached to the fragile leg of a singing bird.
Colored bands tell how far a bird has migrated between its winter and summer homes, measured in thousands of miles for some species.
How old is this feathered singer of song? The answer is in the leg band.
Cinco De Mayo was cause for celebration on May 5, but it was International Migratory Bird Day that brought a team of bird banders from the University of Arkansas to Hobbs State Park-Conservation Area.
University students and teachers showed park visitors the process of bird banding and why it’s done.
If a banded bird is recovered later, information on the band is reported to authorities.
Researchers can determine the bird’s age, health and migration route.
Band information can reveal if a species is growing in numbers, is in decline or holding steady.
First, the banding team had to get a few birds in hand to show how banding is done. It takes a fine-mesh net and a little trickery.
Christy Slay with the University of Arkansas Applied Sustainability Center and biology students Abby Darrah and Marla Steele set up two nets.
They are shaped like a badminton net but are black and so fine they’re almost invisible.
The team stretched these nets near bird feeders behind the Hobbs Visitor Center.
Birds fly into the net and drop into mesh pockets. Bird banders carefully removed five songbirds from the nets for banding.
All eyes were on the team as goldfinches, a nuthatch and a cowbird were banded and released.
The plastic bands weigh next to nothing. They’re applied with a tool that opens each band. A slit in the band goes over the bird’s leg.
When the tool is removed, the slit closes and the band stays put.
The process takes three minutes or so, then the bird is released.
Each of the birds banded on May 5 flew back to the trees, never skipping a wing beat.
Fifth-grade students from Monitor Elementary in Springdale were among the park visitors wowed by the captured birds they could examine up close.
Slay showed fifth-graders the first bird captured in the net, a cowbird.
"It doesn’t build a nest," Slay said. "It lays its eggs in the nests of other birds."
The team gauged the cowbird’s body fat. In the bird world, fat is good.
"A fat bird is usually eating healthy," said university student Steele.
Big is good, too, as far as a bird’s lifespan. Large birds generally live longer than small birds, student Darrah noted.
Some parrots live close to 100years. Songbirds, such as the nuthatch cradled in Darrah’s hand, live five years, maybe longer.
"An old guy might be 10," she said.
The bird banders rejoiced when another goldfinch tumbled into a net pocket. A female, one of the team piped.
So how do bird banders tell the boys from the girls?
Feathers can give a clue. But in some birds, the males and females have identical feather colors, the team explained.
Males have the brightest plumage in many species so they can attract mates.
In songbirds, females are generally larger, but the size difference can be so small it’s tough to tell the gender.
The five songbirds banded at Hobbs were docile. Some even sounded off in song in the caring hands of banders. Bird banding can be dangerous if the target birds are hawks, owls or other raptors.
So how do you get a fighting-mad owl out of a capture net?
"Very carefully," said Kim Smith, university biology professor. "You have to get the feet out first."
Then the wings are freed.
"The head comes out last," Smith said.
Messing with songbirds is easier, and sometimes the banders hope the birds make a mess.
Our cowbird, with its plain-Jane plumage, did some time in a closed shoe box with a paper towel for a floor. The bird banders hoped the cowbird would defecate in the box instead of on the next washed car it would fly over.
When the cowbird was freed, there was the hoped for deposit on the towel. In a lab, the stool is meticulously analyzed.
"Who would’ve thought bird poop could be so interesting," Slay said.