Since not very many banded birds are re-found away from the place they are banded, the majority of what we learn from banding birds comes from data we gather when we band them, and when we recapture our own birds on site. Nonetheless, every so often we hear about a recovery of one of our banded birds. These reports come from the USGS Bird Banding Lab, which administers bird banding in the U.S. We just got one this week, and it is quite special!
A Northern Waterthrush banded here on campus on 30 April 2007 was recaptured and released at Cedar Grove Ornithological Station in Sheboygan County, Wisconsin on 21 October 2008. The map below shows the location of Cedar Grove with a red marker, and our location in blue (click to enlarge).
How rare is this? Of the 32 recoveries of our birds that have been reported to us since 1992, this is only the 14th to have been reported outside the state of Michigan — you can view an interactive map of all out of state recoveries here. Typically, these birds are found dead. The most common reason, if one is given, is that the bird has been killed by a cat. This waterthrush is just the third time one of our birds has been captured and released by another bander. The others were a Yellow-rumped Warbler we banded in May 1997 that was recaptured in Tallahassee, Florida in March 1998, and a White-throated Sparrow banded in October 1999 that was recaptured on the Bruce Peninsula in Ontario in April 2006 (not a typo!).
But several more factors make the recovery of this waterthrush even more unusual.
- The warbler and the sparrow are short-distance migrants, wintering in the U.S. The waterthrush is a long distance migrant. After we banded it, it probably nested in northern Michigan or Canada, then it likely spent the winter somewhere in the West Indies or perhaps Central America (you can view a range map here). Then it went north, nested again, and was headed back south along the western shore of Lake Michigan when it was captured at Cedar Grove.
- Cedar Grove is a hawk banding station. For over 50 years, raptors have been banded at Cedar Grove, and small songbirds are only captured incidentally!
- I’ve banded 167 Northern Waterthrushes during spring migrations, but only one has had a bill deformity…this one! So I happened to have photographs of it, which are below.
This slight deformity apparently did not hinder the bird prior to it being banded. It had a lot of fat, and at 22.1 grams, it was the second heaviest waterthrush RRBO has handled in spring, with the average being 18.0 grams.
One of the banders in charge at Cedar Grove told me that because they do not really “process” songbirds, the waterthrush was not checked for fat or weighed, nor was any abnormality noted. Bummer. I’ve caught only a few birds banded by other people (the last one was a Ruby-crowed Kinglet in 2005), but — perhaps because I’m so astonished that it happens at all — I give them a really thorough going-over.
Most banded birds are found not by other banders, but by regular folks. Here’s what you should do if you find a banded bird.