A bird in the hand: Northwoods man continues lifelong passion
Story and photos by Lori Adler
Many people might spend their retirement years pursuing more leisurely activities, but not Bruce Bacon of Mercer. A former DNR (Department of Natural Resources) wildlife biologist, Bruce is spending his retirement almost as busy as when he was working full time. As a Master Bird Bander, his services are continually in demand.
Bruce was born between Eagle River and Three Lakes, in an area formerly known as Clearwater Lake. He graduated from Three Lakes High School and received his college degree in wildlife management and biology from University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point in 1977. Following a college internship at the Wisconsin DNR, he was immediately hired upon graduation and worked for several years in the Kenosha and Madison area. He continued to work with various DNR agencies all across the state of Wisconsin, finally landing in Mercer in 1990 where he spent the rest of his career. Bruce then retired from the DNR in 2012.
Back when he was still an intern, Bruce began banding waterfowl in 1976 and then received his songbird banding permit in 1982.He felt a need for a more direct connection to wildlife, and banding birds was a way to fulfill that need.
“It’s hands-on biology. A lot of work for state agencies is paperwork and people management. In wildlife management, most of the critters you deal with are dead. You’re aging deer that are shot, you’re checking in furbearers that are trapped and killed. A lot of students come out of college thinking it’s closer to Mutual of Omaha stuff, and it’s not. It’s picking up litter, putting up signs and keeping people where they belong and out of where they don’t belong. And there’s a lot of wildlife work, habitat work, that you do quite a bit, but you’re not actually working with the critters much,” Bruce explains, noting, “Banding was a way to be active with wildlife.”
Bird banding permits from the Federal Fish and Wildlife Service are not that simple to get. A person must have a scientific or educational need to band. In the United States, only about 2,000 permits exist, with 50 of those being in Wisconsin. Bird banding serves many purposes. It helps educate people about birds and habitats and their preservation and gives people more of an appreciation of nature, but most importantly, bird banding helps scientists and researchers.
Bruce states, “The main reason is to get biological data on individual birds and their species, including how long they live, survival rates and mortality, especially with the hunted species. With the songbirds, it’s site fidelity (which means do they come back to that same site) for the summer and for wintering birds. And then you can get reproductive information like the percentage of adults and young birds.”
In order to band a bird, first it must be captured. Bruce uses special nets to catch the birds. The nets are a fine mesh and, at a 90-degree angle, are virtually invisible. Learning the best locations to set the nets (and areas to try to capture birds in general) is a matter of experience. Bruce often returns to the same successful locations year after year, knowing what to expect based upon previous experience.
Once the birds are captured, he releases them from the nets and proceeds to gather all the necessary information, including whether a bird is an adult or youth, its sex, measurements and its reproductive status. Of course, the location and time of its capture is recorded as well as the band information (each band has a unique identifying number). Once the bird information is recorded and the bird is banded, it is released. The delicate nets, as well as the light touch of the bander, ensures that the birds are not in any way harmed in the capture and banding process.
All this information is then entered into the USGS Bird Banding Laboratory website. The lab, located in Patuxent, Maryland, just outside of Washington D.C., is the national repository for all this information. The lab allows the public to access a wide variety of information on birds all across the U.S. for scientific research and education.
It’s important therefore when banded birds are located, this information is also sent into the USGS Bird Banding Lab because without recovery information on banded birds, the process is not nearly as helpful to researchers. Since the bands are extremely small and the number encompasses the entire band, the band cannot generally be read with binoculars except with large birds like eagles or bigger waterfowl species. Therefore, most bands are found on dead birds. This can be a bird found already deceased or those that have been hunted. According to Bruce, a fairly large amount of songbird bands are found in kitty litter after a cat has consumed a bird. It is possible however for a live banded bird to be located, especially with window strikes where the bird is merely stunned for a few minutes. Even if the bird is no longer alive, the information on its location is extremely helpful.
Though contributing to the scientific community is one reason to band birds, Bruce spends more of his time these days assisting with educational efforts. Bruce’s services are requested often by area groups and educational facilities. Many of the requests come from cities that participate in the Bird City Wisconsin program (one of the requirements of which is an annual education program) and often have bird festivals and ask Bruce to make presentations and give banding demonstrations. As these festivals all generally occur in the same time period all across the state (usually May and June when birds are more prevalent), he has already presented at three different towns in any given weekend.
While science and education are the main reasons for Bruce to participate in bird banding all these years, in retirement it’s become more of a recreational activity.Bruce is able to band any bird except hummingbirds. He continues to maintain his banding permits and has no plans to stop banding anytime soon.
“I like fishing and hunting, and a lot of people use catch-and-release, and this is catch-and-release of birds, and it’s a challenge,” Bruce remarks, adding, “I’m going to be a biologist until I die, that’s the plan, I guess, and this is one way of staying involved.”
Finding a banded bird
Anyone finding a banded bird, either living or dead, should report the information to the USGS Bird Banding Laboratory at www.reportband.gov.
The form requires only five minutes to complete but provides scientists with vital information. The information needed to complete the form includes the number on the band, the date the bird was found, the location where the bird was found, the species of bird and if the bird is alive or dead.
After the information is submitted, the bird banding laboratory will send the reporter a certificate of appreciation as well as information about the bird including where and when it was originally banded.
The work of the bird banding laboratory contributes greatly to the understanding of birds including their lifespan and survival rates as well as their migration and breeding patterns. This in turn leads to conservation of both birds and their habitats.