The banding of birds for identification has occurred for over 100 years in the U.S. The first records of bird banding in North America come from naturalist John James Audubon. The numbered bands help scientists at the United States Geologic Survey and the Canadian Wildlife Service study the flight patterns, habitat, and more about birds, from the smallest hummingbird up to the trumpeter swan. For waterfowl hunters, harvesting a banded bird can be a milepost in their hunting career. Each band collected is a band of honor…not only for having taken the bird, but also as respect for the life of the bird it has graced. True sportsmen will know the story of any band they collect and the bird that carried it. Bass Pro Shops Altoona Hunting Associate Frank Lake tells his:
Being a relatively new resident of Iowa, I have come to enjoy the new hunting and fishing that this great state has given me. I’m originally from Southern California and had done some duck and goose hunting in that area, but it was mostly open water hunting.
After persuasion from some friends a couple of years ago, I was introduced to waterfowl hunting Midwest-style, particularly goose hunting. On various hunting excursions, I couldn’t stop noticing the displays of silver leg bands on fellow hunters’ call lanyards. Some would have a few and a couple of hunters…well, it seemed their lanyards were nothing but pieced together leg bands.
However, the bands weren’t just for bravado. Every hunter had a story about his or her bands. One friend explained that on his first ever hunt he shot two of the three bands that he held in highest regard. Another friend, a few weeks later, showed me his collection, which looked like a massive ball of recycled soda cans. Silver, black, some stained brown… each one had its own individual story. I looked forward to the time I would harvest a banded bird to begin my own collection of stories and remembrances.
That moment finally came.
A couple of weeks ago, the day started out in Iowa, and many other locations across this country, as it has so often this season: Snow on the ground, freezing temperatures, and the wind pushing the cold right down to the skin. For our hunting group it didn’t seem to matter, as we continued the centuries old tradition of hunting and set up our spread that morning.
It wasn’t long and the geese started to move. With the weather being so cold, they had to fly out of the city to the farm fields to eat, and that’s where we waited. The first group pushed north right into our spread and, with an excited “get ‘em,” we sat up from the dugout frozen ditches that we laid in and surprised our prey. Pops from the guns erupted, and the birds flew everywhere…startled by us hunters appearing from nowhere. There where birds falling from the flock. We quickly reloaded, retrieved the birds we had shot, and returned to our blinds.
About an hour passed, with some flocks passing by, but none could be coaxed in with our decoys and calls. After a little while, a small group worked their way toward us fighting the brutal north wind. It seemed like an eternity, while we watched them from afar, moving their wings with such effort just to come to the field. Like any other hunter out there, the anticipation grew with every passing second. The flock now was a couple hundred yards away and we could really start to hear them call back to us. The only thing going through my head was “here we go.” The group started their final approach, cupping their wings and cackling at us as they drew closer. As they were about to set down, one of their calls didn’t sound the same as the rest and they broke away from us. Seeing this, and knowing that they were still within range, I called out to take them. I lifted my old shotgun, added a little lead into the shot, and squeezed the trigger. With a thunderous clap, that 12-gauge, 3.5-inch black cloud round went off, and the bird that I aimed for started to fall like a maple leaf to the ground.
The other guys in the group looked over and said, “Yeah, yeah, lucky shot,” and the usual phrases we all give each other. I reloaded the gun and walked out to my bird. As I got closer, I saw something that didn’t look natural and was clearly out of place.
It was a band.
The rush of excitement flushed over me and I forgot the cold that day.
“Hey, we got jewelry!” I yelled.
Of course, my fellow hunters were doubtful. I walked over to the blinds to show them the bird. One of the hunters, who has many bands himself, looked at the number printed into the steel and said, “That’s going to be an old bird.”
Another hunter, grinning from ear to ear like a child raiding the cookie jar, good-naturedly ribbed, "Hey, I shot that one!"
We finished the day with our limit. Since it was a weekend, I had to wait until the following day to call in the band and find out the history of that bird. That night seemed like it would never end.
Morning arrived and I dialed the number on the band. At a call center somewhere in Missouri, a very nice receptionist picked up the phone and collected my information - number on the band, when did I recover the bird, did I shoot or find the bird, my name, address, email, phone number - and a list of questions that seemingly went on forever.
“You shot an old bird,” she said, and my interest peaked.
The bird was banded August 4, 2006, in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada. I went to a map and explored the distance that the bird had flown from the Southwest area of the Hudson Bay to Iowa.
How many miles had that bird flown for the past seven years?
Where had it been?
Where was the bird’s nesting area during the summer? Had it been further south for the winter than just Iowa?
I thought about the odds of how, over the vastness of the Mississippi flyway, this bird and I met in that field, on that day, in the middle of Iowa, in the middle of the country.
While there are many questions that will remain unanswered, this fact is true: I'm permanently hooked on waterfowl hunting by this first of many bands to come and many more stories behind every bird.
For more information on bird banding, visit www.pwrc.usgs.gov/BBL/homepage/aboutaux.cfm.
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