On the Wing
keeping track of Migrating birds
This April, at the Birdcraft Sanctuary in Fairfield, some 500 migrating birds will be caught in 15 mist nets stationed strategically throughout the property. Master bird-bander Judy Richardson and her trained volunteer banders, will be up at dawn to catch, bag, band, and release the birds after recording salient details. Working under the auspices of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, they will process, and in most cases, release the birds in less than ten minutes. Handling the birds is an art in itself, for the birds have one or another body parts caught in the mesh, and must be handled quickly and with skill or they could die from stress or injury.
Culling the information gathered, scientists can track how far birds travel, how long they live, and discover where they rest and spend the winter. Over time, scientists can assess whether a specie’s numbers are rising or falling.
For the banders who participate in this bi-seasonal, spring-and-fall operation along the Atlantic flyway, these are weeks to see an extraordinary assortment of birds, from delicate and exquisitely marked songbirds—gray catbirds are most common in springtime, while white-throated sparrows top the list in the fall—to the occasional misfit who winds up in Fairfield terribly off course. Some 120 species of birds have been recorded since the banding station was established in 1977.
The Birdcraft operation is now a part of a national banding effort. Remarkably, given the sanctuary’s inception as a diminutive six-acre urban asylum, it marks the place where the plight of birds came to national attention nearly a century ago.
Mabel Osgood Wright, its creator, set out to thwart the wanton slaughter of birds, whose luxurious feathers were used for women’s hats. In contrast, she offered the “Song Bird Sanctuary—an oasis in a desert of material things.” When Annie Burr Jennings, an heir to the Standard Oil fortune and Wright’s friend, gave the project her imprimatur, the future of the sanctuary and the Birdcraft Museum was secured. Money was not spared to make the urban oasis, just “ten minutes’ walk from trolley, village, and railway station,” and this gem of a place has set the standard for instruction and conservation for nearly 100 years.
Today the institution is designated as a National Historic Landmark, while continuing to serve as an important educational resource. Hundreds of schoolchildren flow through the grounds and museum each year, studying the mounted specimens and learning how to become better stewards of nature.
“The casual observer, for some occult reason, associated the deep woods with bird life, when, in reality, aside from birds of prey and perhaps a dozen species beside, the great bulk of song birds prefer open or partly brushed fields edged by tall trees, with water close at hand, and not too far from human habitations, for in spite of everything, they seem instinctively to trust to man rather than their wild enemies,” Wright wrote. She knew to plant-berry producing shrubs and create areas of brush as well as water features required by the songbirds, features largely lost to suburban development. These elements need to be reintroduced in backyards if environments rich in wildlife are to be preserved.
Many birds once plentiful in Connecticut are in trouble. According to a 2006 Connecticut Audubon report, half of the state’s native bird species were in decline and 17 percent were on the state’s “endangered,” “threatened,” or “species of special concern” lists. Loss of habitat is the major cause and a continuing threat. Unless residents work to reverse this trend, much of the birdsong that we associate with spring could disappear forever.
Yet, Richardson points to strides made since she was a child, when Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring alerted the world to the perils of some pesticides. Once-endangered osprey now nest again locally, and bald eagles soar the thermals in the state’s valleys.