A Bird in the Hand is Worth... A Lot
A volunteer releases a newly banded golden-wing warbler.
It’s an unseasonably cold May morning, with hints of snow flurries blowing through the air. But about a dozen bird enthusiasts have braved the cold – and the early start time – to witness the Milwaukee County Zoo’s bird-banding program. They watch as the banding crew returns from checking the nets holding small cotton bags, each containing a bird. A bander gently removes a stunning black, white and yellow magnolia warbler from one bag. After identifying the species, she puts an appropriately sized band on its leg and takes a few measurements. She examines the bird’s condition, checking its weight, fat and feather wear. The entire process takes a couple of minutes, and the bird is set free, none the worse for its encounter.
Zookeeper Mickey O’Connor started the Zoo’s bird-banding program in 2001. “We wanted to learn what migratory and resident species are using the grounds,” she says. Since then, the Zoo has documented 183 species here, including 47 species nesting on the grounds and 44 that are considered endangered, threatened or species of concern. “We’ve really caught some cool species by banding that we otherwise wouldn’t have known were here, such as Louisiana water thrush, yellow-breasted chat, hooded warblers, summer tanager and Carolina wren,” O’Connor says.
Zookeeper Mickey O’Connor shows observers the netting that catches birds for banding.
“The Zoo is a very important migration stop,” she adds. While a number of species nest on Zoo grounds, many more species refuel here while passing through during spring and fall migration. Some are on their way to Wisconsin’s north woods, while others are headed to the boreal forests in Canada. “The Zoo is a perfect stopping place because we have shelter, fresh water and food,” O’Connor says. “They can rest here a few days, wait until conditions are right and then continue on their migration.”
O’Connor leads the bird-banding program with the support of the Zoo’s management team. She often bands birds on her own time with help from fellow volunteers, including other zookeepers and members of Zoo Pride, the Zoological Society’s volunteer auxiliary. They band birds at the Zoo several times in April and May and again from mid-August to October, collecting data that is sent to the U.S. Geological Survey. “It’s citizen-science research,” O’Connor says.
Bird banding, which requires a federal permit, doesn’t hurt the birds. O’Connor went through extensive training to receive her master banding permit, allowing her to train others to band as well. The information gathered at the Zoo is added to a database with information from other banders nationwide, providing ornithologists (bird scientists) valuable data about migration routes, bird health and longevity, species populations and much more. The bands even allow researchers to track specific birds if they are found or recaptured. For example, a hummingbird O’Connor banded in Fort Atkinson was recaptured by a bander in North Carolina. “The bird had traveled more than 800 miles in three weeks,” O’Connor says. “Without banding, we never would’ve known that.”
Research from ornithologists matches what O’Connor has observed – that many species of songbird are declining. For example, wood thrushes were once abundant at the Zoo, and now O’Connor rarely sees them. “It’s not like before. You would hear them singing constantly.” Habitat loss is the biggest problem facing the birds as forests and woody areas are cut down for new developments. Other factors include pesticides, climate change, window strikes and cat predation. “Billions of birds each year in the U.S. are killed by window strikes and cat predation,” O’Connor says. “It’s inconceivable.” The Zoo, with support from the Zoological Society, has been working on strategies to reduce window strikes on its grounds using tools such as window clings, nylon cord and silk screens. It also is increasing its number of native plants. The plants attract more insects than exotic plants, providing more food for the birds. “We’re doing what we can,” O’Connor says.
Our Resident Birds
While the Zoo is a great stop for migrating birds, conditions here are less ideal for nesting birds because the Zoo’s woods are fragmented, allowing predators such as raccoons and chipmunks easier access to nests. Still, several species commonly make their homes here, including house wrens, black-capped chickadees and tree swallows. Zookeepers work with volunteers from Zoo Pride, the Zoological Society’s volunteer auxiliary, to provide homes for these birds and food for any bird that nests here or passes through.
Zookeeper Cassie Sajkowski blows on a Nashville warbler to check the bird’s amount of feathers and fat.
Carol Stefanich, a Zoo Pride volunteer, monitors nine of the 35 nest boxes around the Zoo. She cleans the boxes in fall and spring and checks them twice a week for six months of the year, looking for nests, eggs and fledgling birds. “It’s always exciting,” she says. “You never know what you’ll find.” In 2016, a flying squirrel and a field mouse claimed two of her boxes, but birds moved into the other seven. She counted 56 eggs laid in her boxes. In all, the Zoo counted 117 fledglings in the boxes in 2016, up from 85 the previous year. The volunteers’ data and observations are sent to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y., and the Bluebird Restoration Association of Wisconsin.
Carol’s husband, Dave, helps fill the bird feeders around the Zoo, including sunflower and thistle feeders for finches and jelly feeders for orioles. The Zoo also has three hummingbird feeders. He even fills the feeders in winter for birds that stay year round. Dave says he enjoys getting up early to fill the feeders and watch the birds. “You see a lot of different birds you wouldn’t normally see,” he says.
You Can Help Our Feathered Friends
Many species of songbirds are in trouble due to habitat loss, climate change and other factors. Here are some things you can do to help the birds:
• Prevent window strikes. Each year, hundreds of millions of birds die in the U.S. after colliding with windows. The American Bird Conservancy offers a list of products such as tape, film or decals that help prevent collisions. Visit abcbirds.org/get-involved/bird-smart-glass to learn more. You can also reduce window strikes by keeping blinds or curtains closed.
• Don’t allow your cat outside. Cats kill an estimated 2.4 billion birds per year in the U.S.
• Make your yard a bird haven. Offer bird houses, feeders and baths to provide shelter, food and water. Plant a variety of native plants to attract birds and the insects the birds eat.
• Read “Bringing Nature Home” by Douglas Tallamy for more ideas.
Visit zoosociety.org/MigratingBirds to see a list of birds that have been spotted at the Zoo.
This article appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Alive magazine.