What’s That Bird With the Cool Anklet?

April 24, 2017 at 6:28 pm
By Eliza Malakoff

How far do robins migrate? How long do eagles live? These may be simple questions, but if you’ve ever tried to identify or sneak up on a bird, you can imagine why the answers are remarkably difficult to determine. Birds can be hard to tell apart and cover vast distances quicker than humans constrained to cars and roads. With that in mind, how do scientists know that robins fly 3000 miles from Minnesota to Alaska, and eagles can live to be 38 years old?

The answer is on birds’ ankles in the form of small metal bands, each inscribed with a unique number. The practice of catching birds with large delicate nets and “banding” them has been used for over a hundred years to track North American avians. Today, the U.S. Geological Society hosts an enormous database of at least 64 million birds that have banded, some of which have been banded or recovered in Carleton’s own arboretum! Although only a small percentage of banded birds are ever found and reported, this data has allowed researchers to learn about birds’ worldwide travels and diverse lifestyles.

Bird banding also provides a great educational opportunity for students to intimately meet some feathered friends. And as much as birds will do their best to get away, including jabbing a sharp beak into their handler’s fingers, studies repeatedly show that banding does not cause any long-term harm to birds. Indeed, professionals who band birds are usually the most concerned about the health of birds and must extensively prove their ability to handle and identify birds before getting a permit to band from the government.

If you ever find a bird that has been banded, report the number to  www.reportband.gov and you will get a certificate of appreciation with information about the bird’s age, sex, and original banding location. Additionally, if you’re interested in learning more about birds in the arboretum, you should come to the spring bird count on May 13th. More information at: apps.carleton.edu/campus/arb/current.

Eliza Malakoff ‘19, for the Cole Student Naturalists

Photo Credit: Nancy Braker '81


  • November 13 2017 at 5:56 pm
    Brother Ben
    Great writing! Keep it up!

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