Bird Banding Laboratory



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II. A. Purposes and Justification for Banding Birds

The basic purposes and justification for banding birds are that it provides certain data vital for scientific research into bird populations and for the conservation and management of those populations. While some of these data can be provided in other ways, banding typically remains the most cost-effective approach. Banding, recovery, recapture, and resighting data remain critical for the conservation and management of birds. Their use in the setting of annual species and bag limits for game birds provides an immediate and widely appreciated example. At the level of basic scientific knowledge, banding is also a valuable tool for obtaining information about avian populations, movements, behavior, etc., regardless of any immediate conservation or management value. Lastly, banding has legitimate and widespread educational values over and above its scientific value.

It is not always appreciated, especially by governmental bodies and the public, exactly how valuable good banding data are, and the important uses to which they are routinely put. Examples include:

  1. Providing knowledge about movements of birds - e.g., establishing migration routes; finding links between breeding and wintering grounds; delineating separate populations; tracking range expansions and colonizations; measuring dispersal within populations; quantifying gene exchange among populations;

  2. Estimating demographic parameters and determining dynamics of bird populations - e.g., estimating annual production of young birds or age-dependent annual survival rates; building models of population dynamics for predicting extinction probabilities; separating population sources and sinks; comparing survival rates of experimental or rehabilitated birds to those of wild birds;

  3. Management of gamebirds - e.g., delimiting flyways; estimating harvest pressure for input to the establishment and modification of hunting regulations; measuring differential vulnerability to harvest and other risks by species, age, sex, and geographic location;

  4. Ecological research requiring individual recognition - e.g., estimating territory size, habitat selection, dominance hierarchies, molt patterns, or parasite burdens of individuals; examining importance of migrant stopover areas through individual stopover times and weight gains;

  5. Monitoring populations and individuals - e.g., monitoring Endangered or Threatened species; identifying populations declining from decreased reproductive output or from diminished recruitment; establishing population trends and validating other techniques of population monitoring;

  6. Educating the public about science and birds - e.g., teaching, in the hand, about birds, their movements, their plumage differences, and how molt proceeds; reinforcing stewardship responsibilities.

It must be emphasized that the maximum value of banding data is realized only when: (a) accurate and standardized (or well-documented) data are taken; (b) these data are stored centrally and made readily available to analysts and researchers; and (c) the data are used, and the results published.

II. B. Costs Associated with Banding Birds

Any work involving millions of birds will inevitably incur both biological and monetary costs.

The biological cost of the BBP is that some birds will be injured or die as a result of being trapped, handled, or banded. In all careful banding programs, the numbers are small relative to those banded, but everyone also agrees that every effort must be made to reduce the number to as close to zero as possible. These costs can be mitigated by increasingly efficient training in the capture, handling, and welfare of birds, and by certification of banders. These areas are now being examined by the new North American Banding Council. Licensing, the province of the BBL, follows upon training and certification, and all BBL staff are committed to maintaining high standards and training for all those licensed to band birds. Research on new capture techniques, on identifying species particularly susceptible to handling effects, and on the differential responses of various birds to band sizes and materials is underway in many quarters and will, without doubt, aid in reducing morbidity and mortality from banding-related activities.

The monetary cost of the BBP is difficult to estimate, since it involves thousands of banders, volunteers, and agencies outside of the BBL and BBO. At a minimum, many millions of dollars and hundreds of person-years are spent collecting, analyzing, and reporting on banding studies each year. A small fraction of this cost falls on the BBL and BBO.

Assuring the accuracy of banding data, storing the data in a central location, and making them available to analysts and researchers constitute the major monetary costs to the BBL, and these can be mitigated by increasing the efficiency of the BBL's operations. We have addressed a significant portion of this report to that end.

II. C. Justification for a Federal Bird Banding Laboratory

Protection, conservation, and management of migratory birds are justified and mandated in the U.S. by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (as amended) and in Canada by counterpart legislation, the Migratory Birds Convention Act of 1917 (as amended). Inasmuch as bird banding is a valuable tool for conserving and managing bird populations, and the existence of an efficient and centrally run BBP is the best way to maximize the value of data from bird banding while mitigating the associated fiscal and biological costs, U.S. government funding of the BBL and Canadian government funding of the BBO, and by immediate extension the entire BBP, are entirely appropriate.

II. D. Basic Principles Governing the Operation of the BBL/BBO and BBP

It is also appropriate to state in this document what we believe to be some scientific and philosophical principles and ideas that should underlie development and operation of the BBP and the BBL going into the 21st century. Some of these were enumerated in Section II. A., but all deserve elaboration.

  1. All banding data are potentially valuable if collected carefully and under appropriate animal welfare guidelines. At the same time, the relative value of banding data, and thus the value to cost ratio, varies greatly with the type of banding and is generally much greater when part of well-designed or directed research projects. It would be difficult and probably a waste of effort for the BBL/BBO to try to determine for which projects the costs exceed the potential value of the data. A more fruitful approach is to put effort into increasing the value of banding data (e.g., by steering banders to particularly valuable projects, increasing bander training opportunities, encouraging greater reporting of recovered bands), and decreasing the costs (e.g., through electronic data entry and data checking by banders). Both avenues hold great promise.

  2. The value of banding data, particularly if not part of an individual research project, can be greatly enhanced by steering banders toward multi-bander projects that require large amounts of data to answer particular research questions. Thus, the BBL/BBO should work with researchers to identify banding efforts that are most needed and should actively encourage multi-bander research projects so identified. Nevertheless, we do not endorse a policy requiring a peer-reviewed, approved research plan before a banding permit can be issued or changes made to an existing one. Not only would the logistics, delays, and expenses attendant on such reviews be unacceptable, but peer reviews would be fatally weakened by the inability to enforce the proposed line of research, especially when banders are not being paid by the permitting agency. A project outline submitted with the request for issuance or renewal of a permit may still be useful as a basis for steering some banders to more valuable projects, as well as for determining training requirements and need for bands.

    The same basic principles apply to banding experimental birds (e.g., rehabilitated birds) as wild birds, namely that carefully conducted banding with accurately recorded information (such as age, sex, species, and treatment) is of potential value, but this value is greatly enhanced if the banding is conducted as part of a well-designed research project.

  3. The BBP should be driven in all its actions by the needs of the users of banding data: scientists analyzing them to determine basic biological parameters, or land managers charged with stewardship of bird populations. Thus, banding data should be archived in ways easily accessible and useful to such users, and the BBL should routinely canvass its users for suggested improvements in these areas. Users of banding data should be largely responsible for determining criteria for data collection and editing; users should work together with BBL staff, whose chief role in this case would be to endorse and promote acceptable criteria.

  4. Bander training is an important means of ensuring high quality data and minimizing costs to captured birds and should be a primary basis for issuance or renewal of a banding permit. Inaccurate or incomplete data on banded birds are, at best, of little value, and, at worst, could detract from the value of the data base as a whole. Training should be encouraged for both new and existing banders to ensure that they are aware of, and able to use, new developments in bird handling techniques, species identification, ageing, and sexing methods, as well as data entry, processing, and management procedures.

  5. Desktop computers, both PCs and Macintoshes, are not universal yet, but are ubiquitous. Increasingly, the public is becoming more computer-literate. Rapid improvements in computer hardware and software now allow easy entry, editing, transmittal, storage, retrieval, and analysis of data such as those obtained from banding. We believe now is the time for an immediate, major push by the BBL toward electronic entry of all data by banders (thereby replacing schedules and similar documents and the labor attendant on their handling). Similarly, the use of toll-free telephone numbers to report recoveries allows the electronic processing of much of those data. It is time to begin changing communications between the BBL and its numerous clients, wherever possible, to electronic media. The goal should be, to the extent possible, to approach a paperless BBL.

  6. Banders often collect much accessory data from individual birds, such as recapture information, molt, measurements, condition indices, parasites, and the like. If these could be collected in a standardized fashion by many banders, and archived at the BBL, they would be of great value to a large number of research and management questions. Yet these measurements have rarely been taken systematically, and their reporting and central archiving have up to now been discouraged by the BBL for reasons of data handling, storage, and retrieval.

    We believe that with the ready availability of desktop computers and the new ease of electronic data transmission, checking, and storage, the ability to archive these data centrally has been greatly increased. Now is a good time for data users to work with BBL to determine what ancillary data is most usefully stored centrally at BBL, and to begin development of data collection standards. We assume that these data would then be routinely submitted to, and archived by, the BBL in electronic form. We also believe that the foregoing comments apply equally well to much data obtained from auxiliary-marking programs (e.g., color-marking, wing-tagging, etc.).

  7. Criteria for species identification, ageing and sexing methods, and the degree to which they can be applied need to be developed by experts with the needs of data users foremost in mind. Because the BBL has limited staff, most criteria will necessarily be developed by experts outside the BBL (Pyle et al.'s 1987 [and forthcoming, 1997 revised] manual is an obvious example). Once such criteria have undergone peer review, it is imperative they be endorsed by the BBL, and their use strongly promoted by the BBL. Data gathered using such standards should therefore be more easily and speedily accepted by the BBL. To these ends, encouragement and support by the BBL for the development of such external standards is not only appropriate but essential.

  8. We considered the issue of banding data Òownership.Ó Banders, many of whom are volunteers, spend enormous amounts of time, effort, and money in banding hundreds of thousands of birds each year. In so doing they are rendering a considerable public service. To this end, banders are entitled to some kind of intellectual claim on the data derived from their efforts, should they desire to exercise it; for many scientists, these data are integral to their research careers. At the same time, allowing wide access to data increases the potential for their use to answer biological and management questions. The increased value of data pooled from many banders, and the value of these data for management, is the basis for the U.S. and Canadian government involvement in data editing, storage, retrieval etc. We conclude that the bander/data collector ordinarily has reasonable prior rights to the use of data he/she collected, especially for scientific publication, which should be recognized by any potential users of the data. However, these rights should not be without limits. The current BBL/BBO policy on use of data reflects this balance fairly well.

  9. The geographical ambit of the BBP is a question of some immediacy, given that many bird species in the U.S. and Canada are migratory and shared with other countries in the Western Hemisphere, and given manifold concerns about neotropical migrants, the Partners-in-Flight program, and attention focused on the conservation of neotropical avian biodiversity. We do not propose to speak for, let alone dictate to, our Hemisphere neighbors, yet we have interests in common.

    There is an urgent need for coordination of banding throughout the Western Hemisphere for many reasons: to ensure that valuable data on migrants are not lost for want of a central archive or through duplication of band numbers; to encourage banding and stewardship of all birds in other countries, thus helping to conserve habitat for North American migrants; to understand ecological interactions between resident and migrant birds; and to increase recoveries on their wintering grounds of birds banded in North America. The BBP is uniquely placed to play a leadership role in launching such a scheme, and is also in a strong position to assist Hemisphere countries with development of their own banding schemes, either by providing advice or through development of cooperative programs along any one of many potential scenarios.

  10. We discussed both the broad concept of privatizing the entire BBP and the more limited proposal to charge users for the bands they use. While there are some benefits to each, they are outweighed by problems such as administrative costs, potential loss of volunteer banders who provide large amounts of nongame data, the need for quick access to data by the government departments with management responsibilities (who remain the largest users of banding data), and the fact that nearly all gamebird banding, which generates most recoveries and hence carries the highest administrative costs, is already being done by government employees.

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