THE NORTH AMERICAN BIRD BANDING PROGRAM: INTO THE 21ST CENTURY III.
III. A. Mission Statement and Role & Function of the BBL
Mission: The BBL exists to facilitate provision of high-quality data on the biology and population ecology of migratory birds that can be gained from having large numbers of individually-marked animals. These data can be used effectively for the conservation and management of birds in the U.S., Canada, and elsewhere, as provided by the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (as amended), the Canadian Migratory Birds Convention Act of 1917 (as amended), and any other pertinent treaties, conventions, agreements, and laws.
Role & Function: In meeting its mandate, the BBL must provide state-of-the-art service to bird- banders as well as to other users of bird banding data, including at least the following activities:
- issuing banding permits, high-quality bird bands, and technical assistance to qualified banders; and promoting, endorsing, and applying training standards developed in house or elsewhere to improve qualifications of permittees and the quality of their data;
- receiving, editing, and centrally archiving banding data, including original banding data, recoveries, and other data tied to band numbers; this activity is facilitated by providing software to allow banders to edit and submit high-quality data electronically;
- serving as a clearinghouse for requests for data and information on all aspects of banding, including issuing periodic summary reports on banding activities, uses of banding data, etc.;
- taking measures to maintain and increase the value of banding data, for example by endorsing and applying data standards developed in-house or elsewhere; by promoting bander participation in well-designed projects (both individual projects and joint projects such as MAPS or the Cornell Cavity Nesting Network); and by promoting increased reporting of recoveries by the public;
- facilitating communication among banders and among users of banding data to promote the use of new and better techniques;
- working closely with other governments and banding centers to coordinate banding efforts in North America and in the Western Hemisphere, and exchange information on banding worldwide.
While not be among the primary responsibilities of the BBL, it can, and on occasion should, play a key role in the following activities: (a) developing new band materials and new techniques for banding, and (b) aiding the design of computer programs for improved data analysis and easier use of banding data. Even though perhaps less directly related to the BBL mission, actually doing biological research and analyzing banding data might also on occasion be appropriate BBL staff activities.
III. B. Specific Recommendations
Recommendations below are arrayed in several groups, though there is necessarily some overlap between groups, and a few items could arguably go into different sections. They address: (1) Permitting Procedures and Practices; (2) Operational Issues; (3) Data Management; (4) BBL Organization and Staffing; and (5) Implementation.
- Permitting Procedures and Practices
- There should be written guidelines detailing the criteria that must be met for the issuance of new permits and the renewal of existing permits. These should be based upon the principles outlined in Section II. D., especially paragraphs 1, 2, and 4, and should be periodically reviewed and revised as needed.
- New banders should be required to meet training standards before licensing. These should at least (1) embrace competence in techniques of capture, handling, species identification, ageing, sexing, record keeping (including the use of computers), and understanding of the scientific uses (and therefore constraints) to which banding data may be put; and (2) minimize adverse effects on the birds being banded and on their dependent young. Demonstration of training, as per the efforts of the North American Banding Council, especially when the use of mist-nets or other techniques having the potential to harm birds is anticipated, should assume a primary role in permit issuance.
- Likewise, there should be written guidelines for the revocation or the non-reissuance of existing permits. We strongly advocate suspension (and institution of such a category if it does not already exist) or revocation of permits following (1) failure to submit acceptable schedules after having been so notified; (2) failure to meet, within a reasonable time frame, new standards for handling, identification, ageing, or sexing as they are developed; or (3) excessive mortality of birds that can be tied to bander irresponsibility or negligence.
- Operational Issues
- We recommend that the government agencies responsible for the North American Banding Program look into options to implement a coordinated banding scheme with other countries in the Western Hemisphere. There is a real need for more and better coordinated Hemispheric banding efforts in order to implement effective conservation and management strategies for North American breeders, as well as for resident Neotropical species. This would include coordination of band numbers, development of data standards so that all data can be computerized on a unified scheme (including data for Neotropical residents), and development of cooperative research projects. The BBL is well-placed to play a leadership role in the technical aspects of getting such a scheme implemented. EURING provides one model of how such a scheme could operate, though many others are also possible.
- We endorse the current policy concerning use of banding and recovery data. The policy balances the need to recognize that contributors of banding data have a reasonable prior right to analysis and publication of data resulting from their banding, while at the same time allowing use of banding data by others.
- We recommend that the BBL aggressively promote, including advertising, the reporting of all recoveries by toll-free telephone numbers and any other reporter-friendly techniques available. As a consequence, we also recommend that the BBL plan for a substantial increase in the numbers of recoveries.
- We recommend that the BBL anticipate and plan for an increase in banding data, at an annual growth rate of at least 5%.
- We recommend that the BBL should plan and budget to always have on hand at least a two-year supply of all band sizes and types.
- We recommend that the BBL support development of new and better materials for bands, and ways of imprinting letters and numbers on them to ensure longer life, extended legibility, and easy discrimination of similar characters.
- We recommend that the BBL encourage (by funding where appropriate) research to improve species identification, ageing, and sexing criteria, followed by peer-reviewed publication of the results of those studies.
- We recommend frequent, peer-reviewed revisions of the Bird-BandingManual, and its being made available in electronic form (e.g., email; WWW; diskette) as quickly as possible.
- We recommend that the BBL expand its efforts to involve partners (e.g., BBO, USFWS, banding associations), data users, and banders in decision-making and, as early as possible, in the promulgation of new rules, regulations, procedures, and standards. In addition to avoiding potential conflicts, these efforts should adequately fill the need, frequently recommended to us, for an ombudsman to represent to the BBL the complaints, interests, and suggestions of banders who are not necessarily scientists or data analysts.
- We recommend that the BBL/BBO should continue to be responsible for authorizing the use of auxiliary markers, based on submission of a research outline, and for ensuring that members of the public receive prompt responses to reports of these markers. We also recommend that the BBL should ultimately be responsible for coordination of auxiliary marker schemes, but we endorse the current procedure of delegating some of this responsibility (e.g., allocation of particular marker types, colors, and placement combinations) to specialist groups, and of requiring some users to deal directly with reports of their auxiliary markers by the general public. This is an important area that will continue to need attention by BBL biologists, particularly as we anticipate a substantial growth in the use of auxiliary markers for many research projects, especially in view of their value for greatly enhancing recovery rates, etc.
- We recommend that reporting procedures allow use of site latilong coordinates to the level of precision the bander is able to determine. For many studies (e.g., MAPS) a finer grid is required and available, especially now that handheld Global Positioning Systems (GPS) have become inexpensive and readily available. As a minimum, replacing the old 10-minute standard by a 1-minute standard is now appropriate, but provision should be made for storing even greater precision when it is available and appropriate to a research project.
- We support the idea of phasing BBL's system of MTABs into electronic form for more efficient and widespread distribution. We also urge that the BBL and the BBO publish joint annual reports which should also be available electronically.
- Data Management
- We recommend that electronic input of all data by banders, as well as exchange of data in both directions between the BBL and banders, is a goal to be reached as swiftly as possible. The number of banders who do not own computers is a shrinking minority (a small proportion of existing banders may never switch to computers and this can be accommodated). We recognize that recoveries by non-banders will still continue to reach the BBL by every means conceivable, and there is little that can be done to change that beyond promoting expanded public use of (especially) toll-free telephone numbers, email, and the like.
- We recommend that immediate priority be given to development of user-friendly computer software to enable the shift described above. We strongly recommend that this software include automatic screening/editing features so that banders will be able to edit their own data before sending them on to the BBL. This will speed up BBL's data-handling and reduce the number of rejected/suspicious entries received from banders. If outside contractors are selected, BBL staff should work exceptionally closely with software developers. Software should be made available for all computer platforms commonly used by banders; at present, these include both Macintoshes and IBM-compatible PCs.
- We recommend that the BBL build the capacity to process and store pre-edited recapture data, auxiliary marking data, and additional data such as molt, morphometrics, weight, fat, etc. These are potentially very important sources of biological information that are not being systematically stored for analysis in North America. In particular, recapture data, including next day captures, are of particularly high value, frequently exceeding the value of recoveries for studies of demography or movements. The potential load on the BBL is large, so at least initially BBL should accept such data only if (1) they are collected using standardized methods as part of an established program designed to use such data; and (2) responsibility for computerizing and editing these data are borne virtually entirely by the banders through standard data entry and editing programs that the BBL will participate in developing and distributing.
- We recommend that the BBL immediately undertake a modernization of their current minicomputer / terminal-based system to a system with a true client-server relationship, and that permits the storage of all data in on-line relational databases. We recommend that immediate plans be made for obtaining the necessary hardware to enable such a shift, and that frequent upgrading and replacement of hardware be planned and budgeted. We leave the details of the particular system to those charged with implementing our recommendations, but suggest that careful consideration be given to utilizing an outside computer-system engineer as a consultant in the design and implementation of the new system.
- We recommend that the BBL's standard database be reformatted quickly to incorporate new data fields such as data quality flags, how-aged and how-sexed codes, and any additional data that are to be stored centrally as per recommendation (c) above. We firmly believe the initial BBL costs of meeting this goal will be quickly offset by the increased efficiency achieved by the handling of these data entirely electronically.
- We recommend that the new data base be designed with maximal flexibility, to allow easy modification to accommodate new types of data as needs arise, and that flexible software routines be developed to facilitate extraction of data from the central database for data analysis.
- We recommend that the current level of data-editing by the BBL be maintained or enhanced; it is more efficient for data to be checked and edited once centrally than for this effort to be duplicated by several data users, and the BBL is in a much better position than data analysts to contact banders regarding any queries of the data. Effort required by the BBL to achieve this level should decrease over time as banders convert to editing and submitting their data electronically.
- We recommend that high priority be given to cleaning historical data that have been computerized but not fully edited and/or corrected. We also recommend that some consideration be given to bringing non-computerized historical data, including those pre-1955, into alignment with contemporary standards and computerizing them, as the costs involved are probably outweighed by the benefits potentially accruing from resuscitated, vetted, and readily accessible long-term datasets.
- We recommend that banding data never be deleted from master files unless proven erroneous. Merely doubtful data should be so flagged, and unusual or suspect data that have already been verified should likewise be distinctly tagged.
- BBL Organization and Staffing
- We recommend that the Electronic Data Processing Section at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center be reorganized, charged solely with meeting the needs of the BBP, and become part of the BBL. New positions for an experienced microcomputer/desktop programmer, a database manager, and a systems analyst would materially aid this shift in function.
- We suggest that additional staffing is necessary, and should include expertise in at least the following three areas: (1) a combination data-analyst/biologist with strong training in biometrics; (2) a non-gamebird biologist with expertise in avian zoogeography, ageing/sexing criteria, and species delimitation, perhaps involving neotropical species; and (3) a gamebird biologist with a strong population background. These persons will aid the Director in the growth and development of the new program for the BBL/BBP, particularly through their ability to work with and understand the needs of users of the banding data. We also assume no further loss of BBL FTEs, and that presently vacant positions will be expeditiously filled in line with our recommendations here and immediately below.
- We recommend that several biological technicians with demonstrated capabilities in avian distribution, ageing, sexing, and identification also be added to the BBL staff, augmented by adequate numbers of editing and clerical staff. These persons will support the scientists on the BBL staff, and their actual numbers will be determined by need, especially as our recommended computerization update occurs.
- We recommend that enhanced links be made between other researchers at Patuxent and the BBL, including through cross-appointments, to provide additional expertise related to bird- banding data and their use that may not be present within the BBL staff.
- We recommend that an integrated career ladder for staff at the BBL be developed so that staff can be retained while increasing in experience and competence.
- We recommend that the position of Director of the BBL, recognizing its global prominence and expanding role, be elevated to GS-15. Requirements for the position of Director should include knowledge and experience in banding programs, a research track record, and considerable management skill.
- We recommend that an Implementation Team be appointed immediately to effect the recommendations that we have made in this document
- Our overall priorities are to improve efficiency of the Banding Lab
and improve the quality of banding data. Thus our highest priorities for
- reorganization of the BBL, to be completed as soon as possible;
- development of user-friendly software allowing banders to pre-edit and submit all data electronically, to be completed by 30 September 1999; and
- modernization of the BBL database, to be fully operational by 30 September 2000.
- We recognize that extra funds will be needed to bring about all of the changes we outline, particularly in the short term. However we believe these changes will bring about a more efficient operation and greatly increased value to the whole Bird Banding Program.
- We recommend that all of the changes that are adopted be promoted widely, nationally and internationally, in the scientific, land management, and bird-banding communities.