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Gary Lee records hundreds of banded birds in his log every year. He recently re-caught a chickadee he had banded in 2009. Photo: David Sommerstein
Gary Lee records hundreds of banded birds in his log every year. He recently re-caught a chickadee he had banded in 2009. Photo: David Sommerstein

Heard Up North: What's it sound like to catch and band a chickadee?

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Every May for the last 38 years, licensed bird banders have set out nets at the Crown Point Historic Site to document the spring migration. The project has recorded and banded almost 14,000 birds of 97 species since 1976.

Retired New York State Forest Ranger Gary Lee has helped for most of those years. He also spends much of his time banding birds at his home in Inlet. A dozen bird feeders are scattered around the yard. Lee stretches what looks like a fine meshy volleyball net to snag the birds.

David Sommerstein stop by to experience bird banding up close and sent this Heard Up North.

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Brief summary of this Heard Up North episode:

Bird banding is used to study wild birds in their natural habitat. Gary Lee, a retired New York State Forest Ranger, spends much of his time banding birds at his home in Inlet, NY—chickadees, in particular.

By attaching a small, individually numbered metal or plastic tag to their legs or wings, Lee is able to make a detailed study of different types of birds. He enjoys rediscovering the same individual after he has already banded the bird. Lee tells David Sommerstein, “I caught two chickadees here Friday that I banded in ‘09.”  

Gary Lee is a retired NYS Forest Ranger and licensed bird bander. Photo: David Sommerstein.
Gary Lee is a retired NYS Forest Ranger and licensed bird bander. Photo: David Sommerstein.
The chickadee’s mating call is known as the Phoebe call. According to Lee, the male that has the nicest mating call catches the most females. However, “the female will mate with more than one different male because she finds that one will have a better call than the one she had before.”

In order to band the birds, one must catch them first in a net, and that's not easy. As Lee explains, the birds are not always willing, and can't be banded until the bird’s untangled. He says “you do not want to hold the bird any longer than you have to.”

Lee keeps track of the birds he captures and bands in a banding book. Often, the process of banding and recording the data takes two individuals, one person banding the bird and the other recording the bird’s information.

Lee gets a lot of satisfaction from bird banding: “To see the characteristics of a bird through binoculars and have one in your hand and see that the coloration and the feathers, and open their wings and look under their wings, and look at them at them real close… it’s neat….

In a related story today, NCPR photojournalist Mark Kurtz has a slideshow of photos showing licensed master bander Gordon Howard at work banding birds of various species during the May banding season. Howard is a colleague of Lee's in the Crown Point Bird Banding Association.

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