Birds of a Feather ...
By Kathy Vilim DaGroomes
Whether choosing an Eagle Scout service project or planning a Take Your Daughter To Work day, this Ohio family's inclinations are definitely for the birds.
The Blodgett family of the Erie Shores Council have friends in high placesfeathered friends.
For the past nine years, John Blodgett has been primary investigator for the spring and fall migration of a large order of perching songbirds at both Camp Sabroske and the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge in Ohio, collecting research data through banding birds.
And for 10 years, all the members of the Blodgett familyJohn's wife, Teresa; sons, Elliott and Ian; and daughter, Emilyhave participated in birdbanding to some degree.
Birdbanding helps scientists study the movement, survival, and behavior of birds. It consists of capturing and marking a wild bird with a numbered band on the leg, then returning it to the wild. At the time of marking, the bander logs information about the bird, including species, age, weight, sex, fat measurements, and location.
At the federal Bird Banding Laboratory in Maryland, which collects the data, a computer cross-matches this information with any additional data logged when a previously banded bird is recaptured.
"Birds, especially small birds, are an indicator of the health of the environment, so it's important to monitor what they are doing," says John, who is a district manager for a pharmaceutical company and serves as assistant Scoutmaster of Troop 366, Port Clinton, Ohio.
It started with a merit badge
As a Boy Scout in Toledo, Ohio, in the early '60s, John took his first steps toward what would become a lifelong interest in wildlife.
"I was working on the Nature merit badge, and my mother and father took me every Sunday afternoon to one of Toledo's parks for a nature walk with a resident naturalist," he says. "Birds and mammals sparked my enthusiasm."
In 1970, John initiated the first Earth Day at his high school. He later earned a college degree in natural resources, specializing in wildlife management.
In 1990, the John Blodgett family moved to Oak Harbor, Ohio, which is also home to the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, one of the largest centers for avian (bird) research in the country. John's interest in wildlife focused skyward, and, after a two-year apprenticeship, he earned state and federal permits in birdbanding.
Teresa saw John's involvement in birdbanding as a way "to do something together as a family," but she wasn't well versed in the activity. "Back in 1991, I thought birdbanding was driving over to Camp Sabroske in the car and looking out the window and John pointing out a bird, and my saying, 'Oh, O.K., so that's what that is,'" she admits.
Ian was a first grader in 1991, so his interests in birdbanding were also pretty basic. He "liked to come out with us and look for snakes and watch turtles, maybe catch a bird now and then and say: 'Oh, yeah; that's great. That's a bird,'" John recalls with a grin.
A nest box program for kestrels
But times change. Now 15 and an Eagle Scout, Ian has been a top gaboon (nonlicensed assistant to banders; rhymes with "lagoon") for seven years at the research site. His Eagle Scout project involved building 23 nest boxes for kestrels along the state highway system, the first such program in Ohio. The project, which Black Swamp observatory will take over from Ian this year, obtains data on the nesting and reproduction habits of the small, predatory birds. Ian's goal now is to obtain his banding permit.
Elliott, 19, who had served as a gaboon for his dad since fourth grade, is now a licensed bander himself. He points out that families can be involved in birdbanding for reasons other than science. "I'm involved in a lot of things at school, and there's not much time when I'm home," he says. "Birdbanding gives everybody an opportunity to sit down and talk for once. And you're on the site for hours on end, so it's hours on end of conversation."
"Just being in the out-of-doors is extremely relaxing and rewarding," adds John. "We've seen deer and looked at sunrises. One morning, an eagle came floating up with a gold carp in its talons and landed in a tree; it was beautiful."
Ian likes the fact that an element of surprise is involved: "It's like a treasure hunt, because you never know what it is that you're going to catch."
"And you never know if you'll see something you've seen before or something unique and different," adds John. "The thrill of not knowing and then discovering something new is exciting, and that thrill continues to bring us back."
Hiking miles in marshlands
During a typical birdbanding day, John, Elliott, and Ian hike miles, oftentimes in muddy marshlands. They have banded as many as 300 birds in one day.
Teresa, who looks forward to getting licensed, has driven her children to the banding sites for years, delivering breakfast and lunch when John has gone out as early as 4:30 in the morning. Her support has been key in the family's ongoing participation in research, in which the Blodgetts have banded more than 110 species of birds.
Says Teresa: "I think the most enjoyable part is when they bring out a bird and say, 'Well, what is this?' That's a challenge for someone who's just beginning to learn the birds, but there's a book we can use to help identify them."
But not just beginners can be stumped by a bird's identity. "It's an ongoing process of learning," explains Elliott. "You're constantly getting a bird you probably should know, but it throws you for a loop and you have to look it up."
"Often the boys will bring friends out to help as gaboons," says John. "Their friends will say: 'What's this all about? I'd like to see some birds.'"
And Troop 366 has used birdbanding as a camp-out program, with all the Scouts having the opportunity to view bird research through gabooning.
Emily Blodgett, 21, an education major at Lourdes College in Sylvania, Ohio, is the least active of the Blodgetts in birdbanding. She has helped her dad at the banding site on Take Your Daughter to Work days, but she finds it "a little bit too muddy, too mucky, too hands-on," explains Teresa.
Some are strictly gaboons
How can an interested person get involved in birdbanding?
"You could start tomorrow if you knew somebody who was involved," says Elliott. "Give them a call and say: 'I'd like to come out to the site and follow you around.' ... There are many people who are strictly gaboons, and they just go around and help."
What if you don't know a birdbander?
"I would start at the local department of natural resources," says John. "You also might contact a local university. Many universities do birdbanding as a part of the research in their biology and zoology departments."
The national Bird Banding Laboratory, which operates under the Department of the Interior, does not band birds but issues permits, provides bands, and coordinates marking projects in the United States. Master research permits are extremely hard to come by, but even a subpermitthe kind John and Elliott haverequires extensive training, including advanced bird-identification know-how and technical capabilities, plus one or two years' apprenticeship with a permit holder to qualify for a recommendation. There are only 2,000 master permit and 2,000 subpermit holders nationally.
"For individuals who actually want to be certified license holders, qualified investigators, it's at least a four-year process with learning, apprenticing, and absolutely demonstrating the capabilities of maintaining safety," says John.
Teresa, Elliott, and Ian enjoy different aspects of the birdbanding experience. Teresa likes the vibrant colors of the various warblers that are banded. Elliott is fond of extracting birds from the nets used to catch them. Ian, who favors hawk-banding, was able to satisfy some merit badge requirements through his work as a gaboon.
As for John, "At first I was really enthused about getting involved and doing real science ... but as our involvement has grown over the years and I have been able to watch my family grow with it, the hobby is more an opportunity to spend time with one another.
"I think it's been a maturing process, from a science-based interest to a real interest in making our family become a lot stronger as a result of it."
Kathy Vilim DaGroomes is Associate Editor of Scouting magazine.
In Birdbanding, Bird Safety Is No. 1
Putting the health of birds first is the most important aspect of a birdbander's job.
Birds are captured, extracted from nets, and handled prior to and during the banding process. To ensure that birdbanders are exceedingly conscious of bird safety, the federal Bird Banding Laboratory requires permit applicants to show that they can safely trap, handle, and band birds.
And the Migratory Bird Treaty Act makes it unlawful to capture migratory birds without the appropriate permitwhether for hunting, research, or other approved noncommercial or commercial activities.
The mist net used by licensed birdbanders like John and Elliott Blodgettabout 30 feet long, 10 feet high, and connected between two polescatches a bird as it flies, detaining it with almost a hammock-like effect.
Birdbanders don't use bait
"Mist nets are long, large nets to catch many birds as they're flying in their path, going from bush to bush trying to get something to eat," explains Elliott. "You don't use bait to lure them in because that could skew the data we're collecting. We're just catching them in their daily routine by setting up a dozen nets in the same sites every year."
Adds John: "It's dark when we arrive at the birdbanding site to unfurl the nets. The birds are sleeping. After the nets are open, they are available for capturing the birds once daylight comes. Our presence really does not disturb them or bother them at all."
Elliott notes that it helps to have humor and patience when banding birds. "The day is long and tedious, with all the walking you do between net locations. The birds can become difficult to get out of the net at times, so you do have to be patient."
Weather is another important factor in bird safety, Elliott adds. "If you have a lot of rain, you're not going to be out because of the health of the birds; they're more susceptible to catching cold.
"We won't be out when there is excessive wind either. That's because birds end up bouncing in and out of the net because the net is tighter, s o it doesn't have that hammock effect in which the birds just fall in it and get caught or just kind of lie there."
March-April 2001 Table of Contents
Copyright © 2001 by the Boy Scouts of America. All rights thereunder reserved; anything appearing in Scouting magazine or on its Web site may not be reprinted either wholly or in part without written permission. Because of freedom given authors, opinions may not reflect official concurrence.
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