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Banding station aiding knowledge of local birds

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette Jared Wolfe, a research assistant professor at Michigan Technological University, points out a feature of a bird to graduate students Tiffany DeGroot, Samuel Lopes-Oliviera and Tony Lammers at the university’s bird banding site at the Ford Center and Forest in Alberta Monday.

ALBERTA — One of Jared Wolfe’s mentors told him a saying that has stuck with him: “If you get a bird in the hand, it has a story to tell.”

He and others from Michigan Technological University have been decoding those stories at the university’s new bird banding station at the Ford Center and Forest.

The long-term data set will be used to show how the bird community responds and shifts over time to environmental conditions, said Wolfe, a research assistant professor at Tech. For instance, warming temperatures have expanded the habitat of cardinals further northward.

“They provide a deeper understanding of these communities of birds that we love to watch, what’s driving their population trajectory and ultimately how to conserve and manage them better,” he said.

Ten nets have been set up near the Ford gift shop. Even that small range area offers a range of habitats, from wet meadow to conifers.

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette Michigan Technological University graduate students Samuel Lopes-Oliviera and Tiffany DeGroot take readings of birds at the new banding station at the Ford Center and Forest in Alberta Monday morning. The location at the base of the Keweenaw Peninsula draws a large number and variety of migratory birds.

The “mist nets” are so named for their fine mesh, which makes them nearly invisible to birds in the shade or during early morning. They are left slack to eliminate harm to birds. Researchers then untangle them and take down their measurements before releasing them.

Wolfe and others — assistant professor Kristin Brzeski and graduate students Tanner Barnes, Tiffany DeGroot, Tony Lammers and Samuel Lopes-Oliviera — were setting up nets and examining birds Monday morning.

For one migratory bird, Wolfe blew feathers out of the way to reveal thin yellow streaks on its furculum, near the wishbones. The thinness of the streaks indicate the bird is not currently migrating, but still storing energy for the flight.

In addition to traits like wingspan and weight — the latter measured by putting the birds in open cylinders like a travel Pert Plus bottle — the team took blood samples and looked at feces to determine the birds’ diet.

They also checked for avian malaria, which is also occurring further north as temperatures warm.

Some readings get skipped depending on condition. For one female bird, Wolfe skipped blood samples. She had lost feathers on her chest — a sign she was insulating eggs.

The birds are also banded to enable researchers to track the birds’ movements and condition over time.

“On the surface it looks like we’re putting birds in a net, but there’s layers of questions we can address with these types of projects,” Wolfe said.

Human safety comes first, Wolfe said. But bird safety comes before data quality.

Banding is highly regulated, Wolfe said. The North American Bird Banding Council develops protocol for banding, including how to set up the net, how often to check it, and bird first aid.

Wolfe said he would also like to start another banding station more along the shoreline to catch migrating birds heading to land at dayfall for food.

The experience of working at the banding station also provides real-world experience for the grad students. DeGroot said the experience will be helpful before she does field work in Africa.

“It’s a great opportunity to get more familiar with it, and with the species here,” she said.

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