Outdoors Blog

Want to hold a songbird in your hand? Here’s how to participate in research project

Dave Wike of Boise has volunteered on Intermountain Bird Observatory projects for 22 years — becoming so indispensable that not only is he allowed to extract tangled birds from the nets that capture them, but he trains new volunteers to do the same.

Still, he finds the chance to capture and release birds thrilling.

“I don’t care what age you are, when you see some of these birds and you have a bird in your hand and release a bird, it’s absolutely incredible,” said Wike, who is 74 years old and volunteers alongside his wife, Carol. “You see the looks on the faces of the people — they just light up. We love to see that reaction.”

The IBO began as a hawk migration project at Boise State in the early 1990s. That project became the Idaho Bird Observatory in 1999 and grew into the Intermountain Bird Observatory in 2014, with projects that reach into the bordering states of Utah, Wyoming and Montana.

The IBO invites the public to watch researchers work — and help release the captured birds — at three sites. The newest is on the Boise River, on the east edge of town. That site is the easiest to reach, opening the possibility of thousands of schoolkids learning about birds on field trips there.

Heidi Ware, IBO’s education outreach director, began the Boise River site’s third season last week. The site reached 1,200 people last year. She figures she could reach 5,000 to 10,000 if she’s able to generate the funding to band birds more often.

“What scientists need to realize and why they need to do more outreach is because I can say yellow warblers are declining in Idaho and we need to do this and this to fix it, but if nobody cares about yellow warblers, it’s not going to get done,” Ware said. “I, as a scientist, can’t do what needs to be done to protect bird species. So it has to be this cross of citizens and scientists working together to get conservation done.”

IBO bands and studies raptors, owls and songbirds at its Lucky Peak station in the Boise Foothills, hummingbirds at its station in Idaho City and songbirds along the Boise River. The observatory remains part of Boise State but is primarily dependent upon donations and grants to fund its work.

The Boise River site, located just upstream from the Idaho 21 bridge, allowed the IBO to study different songbirds than those that fly through the Lucky Peak station. For species that travel through both sites, researchers are able to compare body conditions. For example, yellow warblers have 10-20 percent more body mass at the river than they do more than 3,000 feet above at Lucky Peak.

“It allows us to monitor and study both breeding and migration in two different habitats in two different bird communities,” said Jay Carlisle, the IBO research director.

At the Boise River site, visitors can join “net runs” — checks to see if birds have been caught in the 39-foot-long mist nets. The material used for the nets is about as thick as sewing thread, Ware said, and the nets have enough give to create a hammock-like pocket to support the captured birds.

Trained volunteers extract the birds from the nets. A complicated extraction can take 10-15 minutes, Wike said, with an emphasis on removing the bird “safely and quickly.”

“It’s pretty low-risk when we have as high quality of volunteers as we have,” Ware said. “And we’re pretty picky.”

Black-capped chickadees and house wrens create the most challenge because they tend to get tangled in the nets.

“They’re so small and they get so twisted up and they’re so fragile,” said CJ Earl of Boise, a biology student at Boise State who volunteers on IBO projects. “It is a little nerve-racking.”

The extracted birds are placed in cloth bags and clipped to the shirt of a guest or volunteer for the walk back to the processing area. Earl’s 8-year-old daughter, Kennadee, often accompanies him to IBO and serves as a bird courier. She has had as many as seven birds attached to her.

They’re “feisty” in the bag, she said.

At the processing area, a band is attached if needed — some previously banded birds are recaptured — and the bird is examined to determine age, sex, breeding status, body condition and weight. A wing measurement is the bird version of human height, Carlisle said.

The information will provide baseline data for future research questions. Ware hopes to create questions that school groups can understand. She gives school groups data, too, so they can practice graphing — the number of yellow warblers captured, for example.

The Boise River site has captured nearly 60 different bird species so far.

“This is a habitat I grew up seeing all the time,” Ware said. “I grew up in Boise, floated the river, would go on the Greenbelt. Even though I liked birds, I had no idea how many there were — so I think that’s fun to show people: This is your back yard and these birds are here.”

After processing comes the highlight of an IBO visit. The bird is placed in a guest’s hand for release.

Usually, they fly off in a flash. But not always.

“They sometimes will just stay there and then fly away,” Kennadee said.

Said CJ: “Just getting her involved in animals and nature and being outdoors, that’s what I love about it. These guys are great with outreach. I can bring her whenever I want and they get her involved and they teach her all about the birds. A lot of kids don’t get that.”

Bird-banding events

The Intermountain Bird Observatory offers public programs at three locations:

▪  Boise River: Songbird banding is scheduled roughly three times per month. The station is used into the fall, when banding events may occur more often. Upcoming dates include June 18, June 29, July 8, July 22 and July 29. Visitors are asked to register through ibo.boisestate.edu. Participation is free but donations are accepted. Visitors can arrive as early as 7 a.m. but even 8 a.m. is considered a good start time. Bird numbers tend to dwindle around 10 a.m. The site is across the road from the intersection of Idaho 21 and Warm Springs Avenue on the east end of Boise. Or, it’s right on the Boise River Greenbelt.

▪  Idaho City: The IBO’s hummingbird-banding program is so popular that only two free tickets remained for the entire season as of Monday morning. Those were for the June 17 event. Three events later this summer already have filled. Waitlists are available.

▪  Lucky Peak: The original IBO station atop Lucky Peak (aka Shaw Mountain) was closed last year because of the Mile Marker 14 Fire. It usually opens July 16 with banding programs for hawks, owls, other raptors and songbirds. Mid-September is the prime time to visit for raptors. Songbird diversity is best in late August and the songbird population is highest in late September. Public dates for Lucky Peak haven’t been set yet.