A bird in the hand: New research site in Helena gets the public involved with bird conservation
It’s an early morning and the sun hasn’t quite risen. But at Spring Meadow Lake State Park in Helena, a team of biologists and volunteers is busy hammering stakes into the ground to set up mist nets.
These fine mesh nets are put up in ten different locations throughout the park to catch birds as they fly through. The banding site is brand new this year, but it’s part of a larger data collection effort through the Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship Program, commonly referred to as MAPS.
The MAPS program is used nationally, and there are 10 stations in Montana. Fish, Wildlife and Parks runs three of those stations.
FWP’s Avian Conservation Biologist Allison Begley says since Spring Meadow Lake already sees lots of visitors, the new banding site is focused on education and outreach, giving people coming to the park near downtown Helena a chance to interact with birds up close.
“A bird in the hand makes a pretty big impression on folks, and gives us an opportunity to bring a few more people into bird conservation or wildlife management and raise their interest and awareness," Begley said. "We can bring people right into the science and watch biologists as they work.”
The park’s proximity to Helena is also important for data collection. Spring Meadow Lake State Park is home to a variety of bird species including gray catbirds, yellow warblers, waterthrushes, and Bullock’s orioles, and its location near a busy urban area makes it even more crucial as a sanctuary for birds to nest and avoid predators.
About 15 volunteers will check the mist nets regularly for the next six hours. Birds caught in the nets are removed, placed in small cloth bags, and taken back to the state park’s pavilion where biologists stand ready to band the birds. The researchers collect data on their size, feather molt, age, health and sex.
Holly Garrod is the banding coordinator for the University of Montana’s Bird Ecology Lab and is helping FWP’s biologist band birds caught in the nets today.
She blows on a bird to temporarily move its feathers so she can see things like a brood patch, which is a bald spot on birds’ breasts that helps them warm their eggs.
“And what’s cool with the brood patch is you can actually get a sense of what age of the nest you're at," Garrod explains, "so with, like, a three of brood patch we probably have a bird that either has eggs that are about to hatch or like nestlings that just hatched."
Whether it’s habitat loss, urbanization, light pollution, or even dying from wildfire smoke inhalation, birds face a number of threats across North America.
In 2019, a team of researchers from Cornell, the American Bird Conservancy, wildlife research centers across the US and Canada, the Intermountain Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, and the Smithsonian’s Migratory Bird Center determined that since 1970, the U.S. and Canada have lost nearly a third of wild birds.
MAPs banding stations have collected data on more than 2.5 million birds since 1989. Long term datasets, like the ones generated from MAPs, can help scientists understand what’s happening to bird populations, and help guide decisions about conservation and management.
And data from across Montana is especially useful: The 2019 study found that the highest declines had occurred in Montana’s three main habitat types; grasslands, boreal forests and western forests.
Avian conservation biologist Allison Begley says the new site in Helena has been successful so far.
“We've been really pleased with the number of birds we've caught," she said. "And think that will make it possible for us to learn quite a bit about some of those species that we're seeing in higher numbers, but also the sort of variety of bird species that we may see at the park."
Begley says they’ve caught a few new species with every banding session. A male and female black-headed grosbeak were the stars of the show for this session.
Banding continues over the course of the breeding season, which in Montana is late spring through summer. There will be three more banding sessions this season, all of which are open to the public.