Last summer, I was given the opportunity to volunteer with wildlife biologists from New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation on one of their Canada goose banding excursions along the North Fork. It was an extremely rewarding experience that I will not soon forget.
What is the purpose of banding birds? People have banded birds since ancient times for a variety of reasons. Early falconers would band their falcons with a return address in case their bird was lost and recovered by someone else.
As time progressed, researchers started to use bands as a valuable tool to learn more about wild birds. Initially bands were placed on birds as identifiers to monitor individual birds that would return to a specific nesting site year after year. In 1902, Dr. Paul Bartsch of the Smithsonian Institution started the first scientific method for banding birds. He banded 23 black-crowned night herons in hopes of getting more insight into their age, migration, and numbers being harvested by hunters.
Soon after his initial banding efforts, others followed his methods and in 1920 Frederick Lincoln formed the North American Banding Program. Since 1960 the program has banded over 64 million birds (excluding game birds such as grouse, pheasant, quail, and turkey as they are banded by various states/providences).
We headed to several sites that were known to have a resident population of geese. As we reached our first location, we spotted a large flock of about 100 geese swimming in the bay a couple hundred yards from shore. It was at this point I started to speculate how we were going to trap these birds in order to fit them with bands?
Chip Hamilton, Senior Wildlife Biologist for Region 1, informed me that we would simply corral the geese like a herd of cattle. Corral geese? How is that even possible? Wouldn’t they just fly away? The plan seemed way too simple, especially for an animal that can easily fly away when threatened.
All birds replace their feathers at least once a year in a process known as molting. Most birds molt their feathers one at a time, allowing them to maintain their ability to fly. Waterfowl however, molt all their flight feathers at the same time. In doing so, they are “grounded” for approximately one month while they wait for their flight feathers to grow back. During this time, they are very vulnerable to predation and will remain on or close to water in order to elude predators. For Canada geese, this molt occurs from mid-June through mid-July, which means all the birds we would encounter on this day would be flightless.
Places on the North Fork where geese have been banded:
Maratooka Pond in Southold
Peconic Dunes County Park in Peconic
Robins Island in New Suffolk
First, we constructed a holding pen made of PVC and plastic netting on the shoreline of the bay. One of the pen’s walls was on a hinge, which would allow us to easily swing it closed once the birds entered the pen.
With the holding pen constructed, several people in kayaks paddled out past the flock of geese and began to slowly drive them towards shore. As the flock approached the beach, a second group of staff/volunteers formed a loose human wall and guided the geese towards the direction of the holding pen. A third group of the team approached the geese from the other direction, leaving them with no choice but to walk into the pen. Once the last goose walked in, the swing wall was closed. I was astonished at how quiet and calm the geese were. There was no turmoil or honking, they just stood there looking perplexed. It was now time to affix some “jewelry” on these geese.
With so many geese in the pen, we set up a tent above them to ensure none of the birds over-heated, as it was going to take some time to process every bird. Various jobs were distributed among the staff and volunteers. One by one, each goose was picked up at the base of its wings with one hand and its body was secured with a second hand. There was some commotion trying to pick up the geese, but once they were secured, they remained calm for the most part. Each goose was carried to the edge of the pen, where a bander eagerly awaited to fit it with a metal leg band. The band was loaded in a modified plier and squeezed into place around the left leg of the goose. Great care was given to ensure that each band was fitted perfectly. It had to be completely closed and that no sharp edges were present. After receiving its shiny piece of “bling”, the goose was handed to a wildlife biologist who would determine its sex. Unlike other species of waterfowl, there is no difference in plumage (feathers) between male and female geese. The only way to to tell is for the biologist to expose the goose’s cloaca. Once the sex is known, it is recorded along with the band number and the goose’s age (yearling or adult) and the goose is then released back to the bay.
Several birds we captured this day had been banded previously. These particular birds did not receive a new band. Rather, the band number was recorded and the recapture date and location was added to the goose’s permanent record. Each time a bird is recaptured, it gives biologists another data point in the life of the goose. A majority of these bands will be harvested in the future by hunters throughout North America. The migration data collected from these bands are extremely valuable to the biologists.
Thanks to the hard work of wildlife biologists of New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation and their volunteers, we can ensure that waterfowl populations will be strong for future generations to enjoy.
With a degree in marine biology from LIU/Southampton, Chris Paparo is the manager of Stony Brook Southampton’s Marine Sciences Center. Additionally he is a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America and the NYS Outdoor Writers Association. You can follow Paparo on Facebook and Instagram @fishguyphotos.