Powdermill Tracks Birds for Fifty Years

A little bird told us that another organization is having a big anniversary. For 50 years, Powdermill Nature Reserve researchers have been wrapping tiny metal bands around thousands of bird legs to track the health of flocks and their surroundings. The Allegheny Front's Colleen O'Neil checks out the scene at Powdermill.

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OPEN: Maybe your kids have been to Powdermill Nature Reserve on a springtime field trip, but did you know about their bird-banding program? This year Powdermill celebrates 50 years of bird banding and field studies in the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania. But the age sure doesnít show - things are chirping right along at Powdermill these days. The Allegheny Frontís Colleen OíNeil visits the banding lab and talks with an avian ecologist.

O'NEIL: Researcher Andrew Vitz is up catching early birds before the sun rises at the Powdermill Avian Research Center.

VITZ: Generally we do it about a half hour before sunrise. So, it varies between 530 and 630 so we never really get to sleep in.

O'NEIL: Vitz is an avian ecologist and head coordinator of the bird-banding program at Powdermill.

In the 50 years since the program started, over half a million birds have been banded. By tracking how bird populations fare in the wild, researchers can use the data to track population changes and ecosystem stability.

For example, Vitz says, in the Laurel Highlands...

VITZ: The breeding bird community seems to be doing pretty darn well up in this area and could actually provide say a source population for a lot of sink populations

O'NEIL: A sink population can be in a fragmented landscape, where the forest is cleared or disrupted. Bird mortality rates are higher there, and they canít produce enough young to sustain their populations. But birds from source populations can fly into sink areas and recolonize them.

VITZ: The Laurel Highlands area could play a role in kind of repopulating some of these more fragmented forest habitats within our overall region.

O'NEIL: This is just one of the discoveries made over the years at Powdermillís banding station, which spreads across 25 acres of old fields, hedgerows, and marshy ponds. The area is surrounded by forest to the east and farmland to the west.

The whole banding process is pretty simple. Seventy tall mesh nets, each about the length of a tennis net, are set up throughout Powdermill.
For 6 hours on many mornings throughout the year, the team checks the nets for birds every half hour.

VITZ: So as we walk down the net we just kinda bob the bottom trammel up and down, so if there is a bird it becomes obvious at that point.

O'NEIL: He discovers a small songbird tangled in the middle of a net.

VITZ So we extract them from the net and then we have these cotton bags that they go in

O'NEIL: Then they take the birds back to the lab after all the nets are clear.

O'NEIL: In the banding lab, Vitz gently pulls a hummingbird from a white cotton bag and picks up a tiny silver band. Every bird caught at Powdermill gets its own band and ID number. That way, researchers can track the birdís information when birds are recaptured or their bands are found.

VITZ: They have these really tiny stubby legs here. Itís the one bird that I actually use my fingers to get the band on. Itís just such a small area to work on their leg, itís just hard to get the banding pliers.

O'NEIL: Vitz measures the birdís wings and body. He turns it over on its back and blows on the feathers to check its body fat.

VITZ Female. Zero fat.

O'NEIL: He turns the bird upside down and pops it into a plastic funnel on the side of the desk.

VITZ: This is our scale. The birds go in the funnel, on top of the scale. This one weighs 3.5 grams, so pretty darn light.

O'NEIL: In American terms--thatís just an eighth of an ounce. Vitz releases the hummingbird through a sliding door in the window by the desk.

VITZ: †We have these little trapdoors here, where we let them go.

O'NEIL: While the bird that flies off is tiny, Vitz expects that the information it and others will provide is essential.

For the Allegheny Front, Iím Colleen OíNeil.