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Avian Adventures

An Interview with Kristen Ragusa | Bird Banding and Kristen and I Laughingly Wonder – the

Inspiration for the Angry Birds Video Games?

Kristen Ragusa is the Conservation Chair on the Board of Directors of Decatur Audubon. She is working on her M.S. in Natural Resources and Environmental Sustainability at the University of Illinois which has given her much field work. One aspect of this work she thoroughly enjoys is bird banding.

Linda: What is the reason for banding birds?

Kristen: There are so many reasons to band birds! The first things that come to mind are population and migration studies. You can often get a rough estimate of the population based on how many birds are caught and banded – there are mathematical formulas which can be applied.

Migration studies are so important in today’s changing climate. Many species are experiencing range shifts– especially migrants– and to understand these shifts, banding gives the scientific community data about how these populations are changing and moving.

Finally, banding birds allows us to study specific aspects of birds, such as growth patterns and diseases. Dr. Travis Wilcoxen at Millikin University, studies wildlife epidemiology. He and his students capture and band birds to collect overall health data that includes weight, size, muscle, and fat scores. Further, they collect a very small blood sample and can test for many dis-

eases, some of which not only can affect the bird’s health, but also humans. Birds can carry many diseases, many of which are bird specific, however there are some diseases that are zoonotic, which means they can potentially spread to humans. When all this information is interwoven, scientists can gather a lot of information about not only birds and bird health, but also the health of the surrounding environment, and can track potential serious diseases.

Linda: And your take on this? Your opinion?

Kristen: I think it is fantastic. The birds may become stressed, but overall are unharmed. The collection and banding of a few, really allows researchers to understand and advocate for all.

Linda: Describe the equipment needed and how sites are chosen.

Kristen: First of all, you need a permit to capture and band birds. Mist nets are used, which to me resemble volleyball nets, except the netting is very fine and reaches the ground. Once a bird is captured, it is put into a small fabric bag to allow for safe transport back to the banding station which is always close-by. Many instruments are used such as a small gram scale, calipers, bands, banding pliers, etc.

The sites that are chosen depend on why the researcher is banding birds and what type of birds are being targeted. Depending on the species, the bander or researcher may choose different habitats.

Black-capped Chickadee and Kristen with male Northern Cardinal

Linda: How are birds removed from the netting?

Kristen: VERY CAREFULLY! I have had the opportunity to work with INHS bird banding crews through my M.S. program and I have also volunteered to help Dr. Wilcoxen and his students a few times. I have been out maybe half a dozen times and am just now really starting to get the hang of it. Larger birds tend not to get as “stuck” as smaller birds and are much easier to remove.

However, smaller birds such as chickadees can really try your patience. It is a bit of an art really, but I have been told the trick is to figure out which way the bird flew into the net and then slowly untangle it from there.

Linda: Risk of injury to the birds?

Kristen: There is always a risk of injury to birds, which is why bird banders are required to have someone with a permit on site. The birds are slightly stressed, but I have never seen a bird injured during this process. The banders keep the birds for a very short time and try to collect data as carefully and quickly as possible.

Linda: And anything else you would like to add —

Kristen: Dr. Wilcoxen from Millikin is working on a partnership with the Illinois Raptor Center to establish a permanent bird banding station. This will be open to the public for viewing and will require registration. They hope to get this up and running next year, so keep an eye out to be part of this great opportunity.

Linda: Another possible opportunity to view bird banding up close might be at the annual Festival of Spring at Rock Springs Nature Center in April.

The March newsletter will have more information. Dr. Wilcoxen and his students are often there

about 8AM with their mist net and banding supplies. It’s an opportunity to see individual birds up close, and to have Dr. Wilcoxen answer all your questions. Be sure to ask him about banding cardinals– if you are familiar with the video game Angry Birds, those animated birds have nothing on real life cardinals who have been caught in a mist net! Ask him to show you the scars on his hands and he will tell you he would much rather handle any big raptor– including an eagle– rather than a really angry cardinal.

Kristen is such a joy to interview– if the topic is anything outdoors, she is off and running! Her knowledge is extensive and her enthusiasm is contagious. She has been doing some speaking at programs of other groups in central Illinois– if you get a chance to hear one of her talks, go.

Regardless of the topic, she always has an excellent presentation. Happy birding!

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