April 10, 2015
Last week, husband and wife ornithologist team Kimball Garrett (Museum ornithology collections manager) and Kathy Molina (Museum Research Associate) partnered with citizen science staff to band house sparrows (Passer domesticus). We hope that by banding these birds, we'll be able to understand how they use our urban environment. These little brown birds are literally everywhere, yet not much is known about their local behavior. What we do know is that they are originally from Europe and were purposefully introduced to North America starting in the 1850s. Because they are very adaptable in both urban and rural areas, their numbers have since exploded. You might recognize them as the bird that once stole your French fries!
Kimball wants to know more, "do they spend all day feeding and socializing in our Nature Gardens or do some have lunch at the Science Center and then come back?” I'm thinking they could even head over to USC for happy hour snacks! But, how do you figure out where our birds hang out, what they do? Sure, radio tracking is an option but that is expensive and difficult to pull off, especially on small birds. A cheaper, and I'd contend more engaging process, is to think about bird accessories—colored ankle bracelets, aka bird bands!
To get this citizen science project off the ground, we had to have some birds in hand (pun intended). Although house sparrows seem super friendly, literally coming in for a landing at our cafe tables, they really don't want to be caught. We tried using potter traps (little wire mesh traps that get tripped when they go in to eat the bait we've left inside), but none of them were curious enough to hop in on this day. It was clear that we needed an additional strategy. Kimball and Kathy decided to set up some mist nets.
We anxiously waited, becoming more and more worried that we would not catch anything, especially as school children began to crowd around our trapping areas. But then finally one flew into the net (don't worry the birds are not harmed in any way, its almost as if they're lying in a hammock)! A female! The challenge was still not over once it was caught. These birds are tough and are not afraid to bite. In fact, I had to loosen the sparrow’s beak from Kimball’s finger. Once the bird was in hand, Kimball and Kathy quickly and deftly attached the colored bands --two bands on the left or right leg (six different colors), which gives us the option of uniquely marking up to 72 birds. They also applied a uniquely numbered metal band issued by the U.S. Geological Survey, took a wing measurement and weighed the bird.
Although, we only caught two birds on this first try, we plan to band and release many more. Eventually, the Nature Gardens and Exposition Park will have a whole flock of banded house sparrows, and that's when we'll need your help. We're going to need your citizen scientist eyes to track these banded sparrows. So on your next visit to NHMLA or Exposition Park, keep your eyes open. If you spot a banded house sparrow, please let us know. All you have to do is send us a quick e-mail with the date, time, exact location, what the bird was doing, and what color bands you saw on their legs (remember not to mix up their left and right) to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you're fast and lucky enough to get a picture, send that along too. We can't wait to see how this all works out! Written by Miguel Ordeñana