Bird banding with a focus on educating people of all ages about the importance of birds in the environment has been the focus for Ruth Green, a Nebraska birder for more than three decades.
"I work to change people's attitude to one where they value and appreciate birds," she said. "My greatest joy is teaching kids about birds in the environment," Green said. "Banding is how to get children involved. Children are always interested to some extent. Adults are more interested and concerned with the use of chemicals such as pesticides."
Besides regular banding programs, an important teaching opportunity has been at 36 different Elderhostel events, both in Nebraska and elsewhere in the U.S. Introductory birding classes have also been taught at the local natural resources district.
Green's teaching skills were honed by 35 years as a teacher, with 26 years in Bellevue, until her retirement in 1988. Much of her time is now devoted to banding spreading the word on the value of birds.
Green first learned about banding from Mr. and Mrs. Fitzhugh Diggs, of Hamburg Iowa. After seeing them banding birds, she knew this was something she wanted to do, and got started in 1966, helped along by a scholarship to attend a six-week class in nature study.
"I went from there," she said, starting as a volunteer at Fontenelle Forest - a wonderful haven for birds along the Missouri River in eastern Nebraska, near her Bellevue home. She kept doing this for 26 years, and banded there for twenty years.
Kris Hammond has been learning the necessities and skills of banding from master bander Green, since 2001. Also learning the necessary skills from Green are Penny Zahurones, a young man from Council Bluffs, and occasionally someone from Kansas.
There have been many instances where birds have been found to have tumors. Robins and Blue Jays have been noted with overgrown, malformed beaks. When three birds with this abnormality were captured one morning in the same area, Green evaluated the situation to determine how chemical runoff from a sod farm into a stream where the birds drank, was the likely culprit.
"An environment that isn't safe for birds, isn't safe for you," she tells people during her volunteer banding programs.
On a recent Saturday morning at Schramm state park, Green and her assistants banded Harris's Sparrow, Black-capped Chickadee, Dark-eyed Junco, House Finch and Purple Finch.
During her comments to the group - including two Boy Scout troops - present on a recent Saturday morning, she often referred to the importance of birds as environmental indicators. The impacts are explained with banding of the songbirds captured in the mist nets so they can receive a band.
With a dainty Black-capped Chickadee in hand and being used as a teaching aide, it can provide an opportunity to discuss West Nile virus and how the number of little chickadees has varied in recent years, since this species is dramatically impacted by the extent of the virus.
Roaming cats were especially mentioned, as Green took the time - asking the crowd to listen closely - to explain that cats' should not be let out around towns and in the wild where the roaming predators kill many birds. Even at the unsettled environs of Halsey Forest, cats are known to eat young bobwhite quail.
"Cat's kept in the house don't destroy our song birds," she said.
A couple of times a bird was held close to someone's ears, so they could hear its fast, beating heart.
Among the lessons in the natural history of birds were how they are adapted for flight, Green taking time to explain how wings, lightweight feathers and hollow bones each are essential for this ability. Other birdly knowledge shared with the visitors was how a bird's bill shape determines the type of food eaten, when and where different species nest, the field marks essential for proper identification, and resident versus migratory species.
The lessons were cleverly done to keep the youngsters interested. Facts were shared, and the kids were asked questions to help them learn and recall what they had heard. Their interest was obvious with the many hand's excitedly held high to be the one chosen to provide an answer.
During the informal presentation, the strictures of banding were explained, so the crowd could understand the importance of keeping accurate records, aging the bird, understanding of band sizes and other essential details of the endeavor. Banding is managed by the Bird Banding Laboratory of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The legal status of birds was even a part of the message, told through the point that birds should not be killed - especially not being shot with a youngster's bb-gun - and that it was not legal to possess feathers or nests.
A different youngster was allowed to carefully hold and release the birds back outdoors, once they received their special leg band.
The bird banding program is "good education for the children," said Jill Fulfs, present with her two young children. "Birds are a good place to start" for them to learn about nature and the outdoors.
A special hit for the group was a male Eastern Bluebird. It had been the goal of Penny Zahurones to capture and band this vibrant species. A male with its vivid breeding plumage of spring, was captured and received quite a bit of attention. As it was banded, Green explained a bit about the plight of the species as its populations had declined due to loss of cavities it had formerly used for nesting, and the value of bluebird trails with numerous nest boxes which have helped the species to thrive. The beautiful bird was carefully held while being photographed numerous times, after it got its leg band.
Zahurones banded the bluebird, giving the moment special importance in recognition of a friend's 50th birthday.
A Red-bellied Woodpecker was also a favorite with the visitors, drawing great attention as its image was captured in photographs.
Rare or unusual species - or a bird with notable features - are documented by a photograph, and she has many images of her banding work. The pictures are very helpful for a class she teaches, called "Things Your Field Guides Don't Tell You." The images show a chickadee with an odd brown coloration, the coloration of hybrid flickers at Halsey, a Mourning Dove with rare gold iridescence, or the traits of different subspecies or races.
"Pictures can prove the skeptics wrong," Green added.
Not all her pictures are bird related, as she also enjoys taking other types of photographs, including scenic views and flora. She started the camera club at Shramm fifteen years ago, and the members now have an annual photography contest, and have an annual show at the park aquarium.
During a lull in the banding, Green mentioned some of the highlights of her bird banding since 1978, especially some unusual occurrences of species, including:
- a Curve-billed Thrasher at Scottsbluff
- a Hammond's Flycatcher at Halsey Forest
- a Black-throated Sparrow at South Omaha
She shared a picture showing a rare black-and-white House Finch, the odd coloration revealing leucosistic and melanastic traits on the same bird.
Returns from bands are an important tool to learn about migration patterns. For example, a Pine Siskin banded at Chadron in April, was recaptured in December at a bird feeder at Springfield, Oregon. A Gray Catbird caught in the net in Nebraska, had been banded eleven years earlier in Rhode Island.
An important place where Green has banded is at the 4-H camp at Halsey National Forest, with its planted tree haven in the intrepid Sand Hills. She occasionally teaches classes here, on birds for kids from area towns, and is often present at some of the annual meetings of the Nebraska Ornithologists' Union that are held at this manmade forest.
Banding about 100,000 birds has exposed Green to many interesting details of different birds, mentioning an apparent greater variation in plumage of different species now, when compared to the past, the changes due to some environmental influence.
"People now are much better educated in the value of birds," than in the past, Green said. "Nebraska is ahead in some ways, with excellent natures centers teaching people about the value of birds in the environment. These places do a superb job."
Challenges for birds will continue to worsen with the changes always occurring in the environment, Green said. One of the biggest threats is the ongoing loss of the natural habitats essential for birds to survive.
Impacts to habitats even occur as more corn is grown for use in ethanol fuel, with the crop production altering land use, consuming large amounts of water from the valuable Ogallala aquifer that creates wetlands and nourishes streams and rivers, and application of chemicals used to grow crops and can cause water quality problems.
Light pollution is also affecting how birds migrate, especially passerine species. During her many years of banding at Halsey, a notable change has been seeing species more typical of other regions.
"Birds are seeking new migratory routes," Green said. "Eastern and western species are pushing into the dark corridor still present in central Nebraska," she said. The explanation is the light pollution that extends from Council Bluffs, westward to the Grand Island and Kearney area that is obvious on a night light map of the United States. There is then a dark corridor, and the night skies are bright again in the high plains of western Nebraska and Colorado.
Bird banding is a regular event the first Saturday morning of the month, from September through May, at 9:00 to 12:00 A.M. at Schramm Park, along the Platte River hills. Green has been conducting this volunteer effort for 15 years.