Sunday, June 13, 2010
M.A.P.S. / Checking the Nets / Extracting the Birds
Step two of the bird banding day was to check the nets and extract any captured birds, which we would do every half-hour throughout the morning. It is still darkish in northern Indiana at 6:30, but now the birds are singing like crazy, unlike the quiet of 6:00 when we opened the nets. To my untrained ear it is a random dawn chorus---beautiful but indecipherable. To Dr. Zinn, it is an audible map and promise of which birds might be caught, banded, measured, studied, and released on this day. I am nothing less than astounded at the numbers of individual bird songs she can hear, identify, and imitate, including her fluency of mnemonic codes for each.
I meet the gathered team of five expert bird banders---Dr. Zinn in the middle, three graduate students including my daughter Hannah, and a gentleman volunteer who is a retired biologist from Cornell ornithology laboratories. I notice they are all wearing waterproof boots. Already my wet cold feet tell me why. Promptly at 6:30 the team members clip a few small drawstring bags to their belts, get their net assignments and head out. The bags, made of white cloth, are for carrying the birds, once extracted from the nets, back to the banding table. They prevent trauma, injury, and escape.
I follow Hannah to our assigned nets. My shoes and socks soak up the morning dew as we slog through the long prairie grass. Of our three nets, two are empty, and one holds two small brown birds struggling to get free---a song sparrow and a female indigo bunting. An indigo bunting! Hannah gently cups the first thrashing sparrow in her hand, holding its neck between two fingers so the head is on the outside of her hand, the body in her palm. She carefully lifts each thread of the net from the body, but the feet are so hopelessly entwined as to necessitate calling Dr. Zinn for assistance. The second, the bunting, Hannah extracts easily and drops into a bag. Dr. Zinn arrives from somewhere in the dawn to skillfully rescue the sparrow. We carry them back to the banding table. I imagine myself to be a small sparrow, stunned by whatever I have flown into, frightened by the monster hands, mystified by the whiteness from which I cannot escape, unable to understand that this is a temporary discomfort or that I am making a contribution to scientific research. I might be fighting for my life, but I'm not sure, because so far I'm not hurt and no one is eating me. Who knows? I only know I don't like it.
I, as an amateur observer of the work, am thoroughly energized by the experience---the wonder of the natural world, the thrill of new knowledge gained, the marvel at the organizational efficiency of the bird banding process, the care and respect the researchers exhibit for each tiny specimen they study. More on that part of it tomorrow. dkm