It was early May and I was out on the plains outside of Colorado Springs banding Loggerhead Shrikes with Susan Craig. We had banded a few shrikes and had just passed a Prairie Falcon when I saw a bird standing sentinel on a fence post in the distance. Propped upright on stick-like legs, there could be no mistake: Burrowing Owl.
“Can you band Burrowing Owls?” I asked Susan, an idea needling its way into my head.
We set the shrike trap out in the middle of the road, baited with a lazy brown mouse, then sped backwards down the road to give the owl some space. It flew down from the post and began dancing around the trap, bobbing up and down, unsure of how to get in or if it would fit through the trap door. We finally brought the mouse back to the car to cool down and Susan and I began thinking of ways to modify the shrike trap for owl catching.
That’s what good banders do. They are continuously thinking and coming up with ingenious ways to catch birds. Susan calls it a sort of “blood lust” without the blood. It becomes a challenge between you and the bird.
One thing I have learned from a few years accompanying banders in the field is that they all have their own style, and their own unique inventions. For instance, Susan invented her own shrike trap, a circular cage of wire with a square cage inside of it for holding the mouse, and a trap door which sets off when the bird steps into the cage. Shrikes have a vicious bite, so instead of risking her hands, Susan puts them in an empty Pringles cardboard tube when banding. These are simple solutions that make banding less stressful…for you and the bird.
It was early June when I accompanied Steve Simmons of Merced, California, on the wildest banding adventure of my life, one full of wacky inventions and new experiences. I had read in North American Bird Bander that he had banded over one hundred Barn Owls. I was curious how he caught the owls…and I wondered what it was like to band a raptor larger than the diminutive Flammulated Owl. Steve was happy to have me and two friends, Nancy and Virgil, accompany him in the field. Steve bands on a ranch where he has set up dozens of nest boxes which host American Kestrels, Western Bluebirds, Ash-throated Flycatchers, Wood Ducks, and Barn Owls.
Steve first treated us to an up close and personal look inside a Burrowing Owl burrow. The burrows were artificial, a home of wood and aluminum tubing set into the hillside. Steve had invented the camera set-up himself. It consisted of a hole in the ground with a camera at the end of a dowel. You could move the camera up and down, and around in a circle. Looking into the monitor, I saw several chicks backed up against the wall, peering at the camera. Turning the camera to the side, I found myself looking at the gangly legs of a chick standing right up against the camera.
We then proceeded on ATVs to nest boxes farther out on the ranch. The Sierras were a pale blue-purple in the distance, one of the peaks capped in white, a striking contrast to the golden yellow fields. Hundreds of grasshoppers flew past as we sped along, many of them hitting my legs and arms with a thump. At that moment, I was particularly glad for the sunglasses Nancy had let me borrow. I am the kind who hears often from others “Why don’t you wear a hat?” or “you need a pair of sunglasses”. And usually I respond “I don’t like hats and sunglasses, I’m fine”. As arthropods slammed against the lens of the sunglasses, I found myself extremely grateful that someone had even had an extra pair.
After banding an American Kestrel chick, Steve set up a ladder by a particularly wide nest box. He then looked at me, “Are you ready to band some Barn Owls?” I climbed the ladder, easy enough. Then I opened the box and five pink gremlins hissed at me and skulked back in the shadows as sunlight flooded the box. It smelled like a pet store: bird poo and wood chippings. They snapped their beaks and looked up with ghoulish eyes as I grabbed each naked owlet and placed them in a cardboard box. I felt guilty, intruding into their world so suddenly, hurting their eyes with blinding sunlight.
Steve used large needle-nose pliers to close the bands. This made me extremely nervous, and the few I tried to band myself all needed correction by Steve. It was not as easy as banding a Wilson’s Warbler, when you can pull out the pliers for size 0 bands and squeeze it shut, confident you won’t squish the birds leg.
We proceeded on ATVs to nest boxes along a creek where Ash-throated Flycatchers were nesting. I was more familiar banding passerines. Steve kept his bands on a steel wire stapled to a wooden board. One had only to unwind the wire from a nail, take off a band, and wind it back around the nail so the others in sequence would not fall off.
The day ended with one last ATV ride to a small pond where hundreds of Tricolored Blackbirds, many of them juveniles, were flying back and forth from the fields to the water. They were engaging in curious behavior: dipping grasshoppers in the water. No doubt the water was also a cool relief from the blazing sun.
I can now say I have been banding by ATV (and yes, I drove it myself). I probably resembled a mouse driving a land rover, bouncing about on the hot black seat. I also learned quite a bit from Steve’s own inventions. A good bander should be able to adapt to situations and, when no tool has already been invented, be able to invent one to fit individual needs. Steve had also invented a contraption for capturing Tree Swallows. He would place a wooden panel behind the door of the nest box, and then drive backwards a distance in his ATV. When the bird flew in to feed the chicks, a trap door, which was painted neon orange, was triggered. From a distance, Steve could see this orange and would know the bird had been caught.
If you are a young birder with an interest in banding, I strongly recommend banding with a variety of people, for I have learned that every individual bands according to their own style. It is fascinating to see the methods and tools others have invented to catch birds.