Various methods of marking birds for identification are believed to go back as far as Roman times and this was generally done to indicate ownership. The first person to ring birds for scientific purposes was Danish ornithologist Hans Christian Cornelius Mortensen (1856-1921) who put aluminum rings marked with unique numbers and an address, first on the legs of European Starlings, and later on storks, herons, gulls and ducks, with the intention of tracking their movements. The first organized banding scheme was established at the Rossitten Bird Observatory by German ornithologist Johannes Thienemann in 1903.
Since those early days bird banding has been invaluable in gathering data for conservation and scientific purposes. But banding has its limitations, as once birds are set free they are very often only identified again when found injured or dead, and then only if the person finding the bird takes the time and trouble to report it. At best, bird banding provides only a few pieces of the puzzle of bird migration and behavior. However, rapidly advancing technology has opened up new avenues of tracking birds, with the most promising being satellite telemetry, which provides information immediately.
In 2005, satellite telemetry was used by the Wildlife Research Institute (WRI) and the United States Forest Service (USFS) to track Southern California’s Golden Eagles, and this was later expanded to include Montana. Tiny transmitters are attached to the birds and their signals are tracked by satellites no matter where they may travel. Working in conjunction with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) the WRI received data via the internet enabling researchers to determine exactly where the eagles have been and when. The information is so detailed that it can be determined how high the eagles flew, and how fast they were flying. In the event of an eagle not moving, it’s location can be pinpointed and the bird rescued if injured, or recovered if dead.
As plans for alternative energy sources in the form of wind and solar farms move ahead in California, data on migration, nesting and hunting patterns of Golden Eagles will be invaluable in ensuring the survival of this already endangered species. On a wider scale, the cost and availability of satellite telemetry is an obstacle that may be difficult to overcome, particularly in developing nations, and so bird banding remains an important activity for conservationists.
Swooping through the air in flocks of up to a million birds, starlings have long been a feature of rural life in the United Kingdom. A flock of starlings in flight looks like a dark cloud constantly changing shape as they expand and contract randomly with no apparent leader. This bustle of activity usually takes place near their nesting grounds, in both rural and urban settings, and while some see them as pests, primarily because such large flocks of birds produce large amounts of droppings which can become toxic, starlings are considered to be part of the UK’s natural heritage. So, a recent report by the RSPB based on the annual Big Garden Birdwatch showing that the starling population in the UK had dropped by 80 percent since 1979, with almost a third disappearing in the past decade, is viewed as a cause for concern. Research further reveals that, since 1980, up to 40 million starlings have vanished from European Union countries, translating into a rate of 150 birds an hour.
As primarily insectivorous birds, but eating grains, fruit, and seeds if available, starlings keep insect numbers in check. They have an interesting feeding habit that ensures all in the flock are fed. As they forage amongst short-cropped grasses, birds from the back will continually fly to the front so eventually every bird will have had an opportunity to lead the flock and be first in line to probe the ground for insects. They are also very successful at snatching insects in mid-flight. Unpaired males build nest with which to attract a potential mate, and they often decorate the nest with flowers and green foliage. Upon accepting a mate, the female promptly discards the decorations. Males sing as they construct their nests and will launch into their full repertoire if a female approaches the nest. With starlings nesting quite closely together in large numbers, courting season is a lively time.
The RSPB has launched a research project to try and determine the cause of the drastic decline and formulate a conservation plan. RSPB researchers will be working in conjunction with farmers in Gloucestershire and Somerset to examine whether there are sufficient nesting sites and food sources for starlings resident in livestock areas. Conservation director for the RSPB, Martin Harper, noted that they hope the research will yield the information necessary to provide the starlings with a secure future through the development of practical and cost effective solutions for farmers and land managers to implement.