Friday 2 February 2007

Individual Recognition

The most astonishing break-throughs in the science of "Enjoying everything that has to do with birds" were achieved through marking birds.
Well, digiscoping came close, but it didn't quite have the same impact on our birding, yet.
Genetics and the new approach to the species concept?
Give me a break! As if we birders wouldn't have found another convenient way of increasing this planet's bird species to get a longer life list without the help of genetics anyway.
No, even if some will disagree, it was the marking of birds that has opened a whole new world of understanding to us birders through unravelling migration routes and vagrancy patterns and getting us great records of passerine vagrants through trapping.

As soon as a bird is marked, we are told, it becomes recognizable as an individual, obtains a life history through moving around a fair bit and allowing humans to get a close look or even catch it once in a while and it is thus far more interesting a bird than the average unmarked monotonous blob in the flock.

Frankly, I'd like to get the birds' opinion on that.

"Darn, I am marked, I am individually recognizable now! No more visiting my neighbouring pair's female because she can now recognize I am not her husband and, hell, so can my own wife, too!"

See? Whoever tells you the marking of birds has no significant impact on bird populations is plainly lying or naive. It surely affects population genetics and inhibits free gene flow amongst neighbours, that's for sure.
And how would you feel if you were told you are only recognizable as an individual after a bird left some bird markings on you?
Not nice.

But to us birders, marked birds are great.
Yes, I avoided the proper term for it because this is not all that simple. Why? Well, apparently, bird marking really got started around 1776 (even though wikipedia or the USGS will tell you a different story). There are no historical records to support my hypothesis, but why else would the Americans and the British have different terms for it if it wasn't for - yes - being individually recognizable as a nation?
In the UK, a bird is ringed whereas it is banded in North America. The Germans refer to this process also as "ringing" ("beringen" - to put a ring on something), so it is 2:1 and I'll stick to that term.
It is quite interesting that all of the English web sources above seem to neglect the efforts and pioneering work of the "Vogelwarte Rossitten" (Bird Observatory Rossitten) which was the first to test the method the Danish teacher H. C. C. Mortensen had established in 1899, with large scale ringing starting as early as 1903. Only if one specifically searches for Rossitten a few sources can be located, for example here and especially here, on the Biological Station's home page which of course now has adopted a different name with it being located in today's Russia. And why do you think those traps everyone is using are called Heligoland Traps after a German island out in the North Sea? Well, at least the South Africans got it right.
Oh, I have dwelt enough now through the old and dusty realms of history, back to some first-hand up-to-date birding!

Searching for ringed birds can be great fun. You know, it is really difficult to find a single Lesser White-fronted Goose amongst a flock of several Thousand Greater White-fronted Geese. In fact, I have never managed to find one, just once an isolated flock of around 10 Lessers which probably belonged to the reintroduction programme and were thus really Lesser Exciting Geese, especially as they were closely attached to a Brant. So imagine spending years and years on the Baltic coast going through all these Greaters with nothing to report out of the ordinary.
Oh, again, not nice.
And this is when bird ringing joins this chain of random thoughts: if you fail again on finding a Lesser, what the heck, look there, a ringed Greater, and isn't that contribution to science much more important than some stupid vagrant bird? And isn't it nice that we can distract from our own identification deficits by emphasizing we found a ringed bird?

Of course, finding a ringed bird isn't all that simple either. Usually, goose identification happens along two strata: If you look at a flock feeding on a farm field, it will be one level of brown backs, as if someone had spilled a huge cup of coffee with cream over the field, or maybe chocolate pudding. That's the first stratum, let's call it the back-level. You can actually identify quite a few of the Anser species by the colouration of their backs alone but it is the harder of the two levels. Then, above that brown and smooth mass which is the lower stratum, towers the higher stratum which is the few necks and heads poking out of the back-level here and there to check for Sea Eagles. That, the almond sliver level above the chocolate pudding on the farm field, is the important level to check because the best ID characters of Anser geese are on the head. And the rings? Well, they are on the lower neck which means they are somewhat in between those levels and can really only be seen on birds that stand a bit isolated around the main flock, sort of the pudding drops that got spilled when the whole flock came down onto the field.
Here are a few pictures to demonstrate what I mean.
That - below - is the usually back-level of Greater White-fronted Geese.

Well, sometimes, a little danger helps, as can be seen below or here:

And here, at the edge of the flock, a ringed bird. Exciting!!

As you can see, even when the head reaches the almond sliver level, the ring isn't all that obvious.
In the middle of the flock, therefore, this posture below would be a major blow to understanding the migration route of the species: no data! The geese to the left and right by the way are Tundra Bean Geese.

It is rather obvious from the pictures how finding a ringed bird along the Baltic works: you're out there in a barren open landscape in winter, it is either cold and wet or cold and very much so, thank you, you're fully exposed to the wind and the birds are far far away.
Sometimes, the US are referred to as the "Country with unlimited possibilities". I think its inhabitants have simply managed to make themselves at home rather comfortably, which even extends to the way they bird.
This - below - is how reading a ring on a goose works around Ann Arbor.

Hey, it's different. Not quite as exciting maybe, but still not bad, eh?
Well, frankly I have not yet reported that goose that's been hanging 'round Gallup Park all winter. It just doesn't seem that interesting, but I bet I later find out no one has ever reported it for that reason and that it indeed holds some sort of totally unexpected world record, like the longest living ringed bird or something.
As a matter of fact, I have had two exciting ring readings here already. Last November there was a report of two Cackling Geese just south of Ann Arbor amongst a group of around 1.000 Canadas which I went to see. Upon getting there, I found that quite a few of the geese seemed somewhat smaller and had a more delicate bill than the remainder and I was wondering how I was to find the Cackling Geese amongst this apparent cline. Well of course, once I got to them, they were completely obvious but I was still very intrigued by the size variation within the Canadas.
Back home, I searched the Internet for further information and found a few very interesting pages, like this one by Sibley.
Possibly I had seen three different forms of Canadas on the pond south of Ann Arbor:
two Cackling Geese of the form hutchinsii (nice pics of a different bird here and here), the big local birds maxima and - yes - the slightly smaller and more delicate ones which I thought might have been the form interior. Luckily I had found two ringed birds amongst those smaller ones which I reported.
I was more than anxious to find out if I was right and finally, after only a few days, I got the following answers from Sarah Hagey of the Canadian Ministry of Natural Resources:

"Dear Jochen:
Thank you for reporting the neck collared Canada Goose. Approximately 7000-8000 Canada Geese are banded annually in northern Ontario and James Bay to enable wildlife agencies to track movements, estimate survival, monitor harvest and plan for sustainable populations of geese. The banding is supported by the states and provinces of the Mississippi and Atlantic Flyway Councils and the federal governments of the US and Canada . Reports such as yours are important to the success of the program.

The details of the birds that you reported are as follows:
7YF1 was banded as an adult female on July 26, 1997 on Akimiski Island , James Bay , Nunavut in the degree block 5310 8120. The federal band number is 0908-09945
J0X0 was banded as an adult female on July 16, 2001, twenty-one miles southeast of Lake River , James Bay , Ontario in the degree block 5400 8220. The federal band number is 0968-12970."

Yes!! Right, they were interior birds! So all of a sudden, those close-to-downtown-on-a-pond-in-an-industrial-area-boring birds turned into a flock from the far North, they really were wild and exciting birds that had travelled thousands of kilometres and seen and experienced more of North America than I have.

See, those rings really are a great addendum to our birding!
And here finally and to finish this post, there is a bit of the interesting scientific side as well, enjoy! Those Cackling were probably from the South of Baffin Island, and we know (parts of) Baffin Island:
cheers and thanks, Clare!


Anonymous said...

Great link to report the band number. For your information, banding is translated by "baguer" (to ring) in french, wich makes the odds 3/1 in favor to the "to ring" verb! Any idea about the spanish translation?


Jochen said...

Hi Laurent!
Darn, my Spanish course never went far beyond "Ola", so I have no idea.

I hope to be able to go birding again soon (one extremely urgent report to finish), so I might see you soon!