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It’s not even 7 am yet when a huddle of Intermountain Bird Observatory (IBO) volunteers, followed by a handful of rapt young and old onlookers, marches off to the tangled web of trees and bushes that line the banks of the Boise River. Large nets trap unsuspecting songbirds, snatching them out of their daily routines of nest-building and scrounging up breakfast. Delicate volunteer hands reach into the nets to tenderly grasp the mess of feathers and tiny talons ensnared by the thin cloth filaments. Some birds put up a mighty struggle, thus further entangling themselves. Others, finding their trajectory so rudely interrupted, hang like tiny Buddhas, waiting for the next thing to happen to their morning.

Songbird trapped in a net

A volunteer ever so patiently and tenderly untangles the bird from net

Free of the net, the bundle of feathers and beating heart are careful slipped, headfirst, into a cloth bag for the short journey to the banding station.

The tiny prize lies quietly in the dark bag.

The IBO, an academic research and community outreach program of Boise State University, supports bird researchers and graduate student projects while also engaging the local community with learning experiences for school children and families throughout the Treasure Valley. Bird-banding observations are one of many fascinating activities that attract both young and old. I wrote in-depth about the need for banding and research in a former post, Songbirds, the rock stars of bird research.

Education & Outreach Director, Heidi Ware, examines a male Yellow Warbler, just out of the bag

Careful measurements and general condition of a female House Finch are documented

Age can be estimated by feather conditions

Much can be learned by blowing apart belly feathers to examine the translucent skin beneath which reveals musculature and sometimes even the presence of eggs.

The featherless Brood Patch indicates mama has been sitting on her eggs. Belly feathers fall out after eggs are laid, augmenting the mother’s body heat on the eggs. Also wrinkled belly skin indicates recent expulsion of eggs. Human moms can relate.

Birds are weighed by gently placing them upside down in a dark cubby on the scale. Miraculously, they remain completely calm in their suspended animation.

Heidi patiently describes the behavior, physiology, and characteristics of a female Bullock’s Oriole.

An important aspect of these public bird banding operations is education. Heidi holds her young audiences spellbound as she explains bird behavior, physiology, diet, nesting and other characteristics. She explains and explains as the audience shifts and changes. Always there is profound quiet around the birds. There is something mystical about these tiny, carnival-clad, flying acrobats. It is impossible to not notice birds more acutely after having attended a bird-banding session. Who knows which of these youngsters will follow Heidi in her path to understand and protect the amazing birds of the world?

A banded male Yellow-Breasted Chat