Region III Quarterly

Volume 2 - No. 1

January, 1940


By Natt N. Dodge,
Southwestern National Monuments.

To some persons, the whole program of national parks and monuments may appear in the light of an experiment in idealism, unjustifiable from the economic standpoint, an expensive luxury subsidized by the taxpayer with Park Service employee as parasites upon farmers and businessmen. This viewpoint is largely due to a lack of appreciation of the economic values of human relaxation and inspiration. It is difficult to credit the mental stimulus derived from the sight of the Grand Canyon, Old Faithful Geyser, or the glorious autumnal coloring of hardwood foliage in the Great Smokies with the inspiration for a successful sales program or a revolutionary idea in making bricks.

There are today state legislative bodies which oppose the establishment of national parks and monuments because of waterpower, mineral, grazing, or timber resources thereby tied up, failing to grasp the economic significance of ever increasing hordes of tourists attracted by outstanding features of scenic, historic, or scientific interest which such reserves protect and publicize. Comparable to the national parks idea in the intangibility of its value is the whole program of scientific research. In this unorganized but none the less real and endless quest for accurate and detailed knowledge and more knowledge, the project of making careful studies of the habits and activities of avifauna through a government-supervised project of bird banding is of relatively minor importance. The possibilities which bird banding offer for obtaining enlightenment regarding little known activities of feathered denizens of forest and canyon have appealed strongly to bird students and educators in the realm of natural history. Among these may be included many National Park Service field men whose work places them in a favorable position to carry on banding. Yet the time involved together with the relatively small amount of immediately useful data obtained spotlights the question of economics of bird banding. In simple language, does bird banding pay?

It is not the purpose of this discussion to attempt to show that enrichment of human life is as much an economic goal as the accumulation of wealth, the latter being merely a means toward the attainment of the former. For the purposes of this paper, then, the customary meaning of the word "economic" will be used, and a brief outline given of the several projects in which bird banding, although still in its infancy, has been of value in preventing loss of money or of bringing a failing industry to a state of convalescence.

In this day of conservation-conscious governments, and nature study courses in the majority of our schools, it would not seem necessary again to bring to the attention of the public the immense importance of bird life to the economic structure of a nation. (5) Yet the writer is continually being reminded that the tragic story of the extermination of the passenger pigeon and the heath hen, and the present pitiable status of the ivory-billed woodpecker and the trumpeter swan has never permeated the consciousness of the average American. Many small boys still spend their Saturdays shooting song birds with air-rifles; homeless cats roam the fields; and unenlightened farmers continue to blast every hawk or owl that comes within shotgun range, proudly hanging the carcasses on their fences, monuments to their marksmanship and ignorance.

Gasps of surprise and disbelief arise from audiences of schoolchildren over the proven statements of Michelet and Forbush (5) that "If it were not for birds, no human being could live upon the earth, for the insects, upon which birds feed, would destroy all vegetation"; "An acquaintance with birds of the farm is as important to the farmer as is a knowledge of the insects that attack his crops"; and "Were the natural enemies of forest insects annihilated, every tree in our woods would be threatened with destruction, and man would be powerless to prevent it."

Buried within the files of scientific reports must be the results of bird stomach-content studies (ll) which show that in one meal a mourning dove consumed 9,200 seeds, of which 64 percent were species noxious to man, and that a nestling robin eats more than its own weight of insects in one day, for laymen universally express an ignorance of these facts. (4) Fortunately such truths long ago brought about the passage of laws protecting our birds and effectively stopped their indiscriminate slaughter.

banded bird

The history of conservation shows that slow but steady improvement in game management and wildlife control has developed from a slow but steady increase in knowledge of plant and animal requirements and relationships based upon an increasingly careful and accurate technique of wildlife study. Stages of advance in wildlife conservation are as follaws: (6) hunting restrictions (which are recorded from Biblical times); predator control; establishment of refuges; artificial propagation; and control of environment. The last and most effective requires, for the control of all environmental factors, in the words of Ivey (6) "the highest type of scientific research and technically qualified administration of regulations based thereon." Bird banding is scientific research, and if the requirements of an expanding civilization with its dust bowls and its exterminated species of wild fowl and fur bearers demand a greater accuracy of knowledge of wildlife ecology to preserve the birds whose value to that civilization is without question, and if bird banding can help us to attain that knowledge, it is not only desirable but it is economically indispensable.

The birds of today face a danger even graver than that occasioned by the commercial hunter of the past. Streams polluted with waste from factories, nesting grounds drained and turned under by the plow, forests felled by the axe or dissipated in the smoke of fires, coastal waters fouled by oily waste pumped from the bilges of passing ships, all contribute to the destruction or the rendering uninhabitable of environments upon which wild fowl depend for food, shelter, and nesting grounds; those factors upon which their very existence rests. Ivey (6) estimates that the decrease in wildlife due to direct killing and destruction of habitat threatens an annual return of one billion dollars. It is only in recent years that importance of regulating and protecting these environmental features has been realized. In the case of migratory aquatic game birds, banding has been the means by which the facts were determined, and accuracy of these findings is borne out by effectiveness of recent laws and conservation activities based upon them.

It should be thoroughly understood that bird banding in itself is not a revolutionary technique displacing all hitherto practiced methods of acquiring wildfowl information. It is simply an additional device which adds innumerable possibilities of refining bird study. Briefly, it enables scientists to learn of the activities of individual birds in addition to studying the activities of the masses. It is comparable to the liberation of an ethnologist confined to the tower of a metropolitan skyscraper who has been forced to study the movements of people by the observation of their mass activities in traffic below. Released, he is enabled to mingle with the crowd and to select individuals whom he may follow about as they carry on their daily customs and activities. Many deductions based upon his observations from the tower will be found entirely erroneous when viewed in the light of the detailed records kept upon individuals. But both are necessary to give the correct picture.

Since the United States Biological Survey took over the supervision of bird banding activities in this country in 1920 (7), the problem of the disappearing wild duck population has been solved. By means of bands, movements of thousands of individual ducks have been followed, migration routes charted, breeding grounds located and potentialities measured. The existence of four major flyways (8) has been accurately determined, and the grave consequences of over-shooting, draining of lakes and marshes, and other activities of man which have unfavorably influenced environment have been correlated with the rapid decrease in ducks. (10) As a result, legislation has been enacted and a definite rehabilitation project put into effect with the establishment of refuges, development of swamps and resting areas, reorganization of game laws, fighting of certain diseases, planting of necessary foods, and other conservation activities carried out which have already resulted in a definite check of the decrease, and, latest census releases indicate, actually turned the tide with a slight increase in numbers over the previous count. If duck banding has established a permanent basis of control of migratory aquatic game birds, it has not only prevented the vast economic loss resulting from violent upset '\of the biotic balance following the destruction of millions of ducks, but it has saved for sportsmen an outdoor pastime of considerable economic importance when the manufacturers of special clothing, arms, ammunition, and similar supplies and equipment which it supports are considered. Four naturalists are now continuously in the field (12) on this project which is the major economic success credited to bird banding to date.


No thinking person today would advocate the abolishment of all activities associated with an army and navy. During peacetime, maintenance of these essential elements of the nation's defence constitutes a valuable testing laboratory and proving ground by means of which our country may keep itself in a position to meet any eventuality. In a like manner, accumulation of data relative to bird habits and activities means that we are in a continually improving condition to meet some emergency, should it develop. Our newspapers are never free of prophesies and imaginings which select possible aggressor nations which might attack us, and which list the comparative strength of their armaments and our defenses. Although they have few headline headaches to bother them, biologists are likewise confronted with rising problems which may demand active combat at any moment, and they must be just as aggressive as the army and navy in devising methods of meeting these emergencies if and when they arise. Bird banding has proven to be of the utmost value in this respect.

Dr. Frederick Lincoln, U. S. Bureau of Biological Survey, in a letter to the writer states: "Knowledge of the exact movements of any group of individuals of any species is of primary importance when special protection or control may be indicated. During the last decade or two we have been fortunate in that no minor control operations have been necessary against any of the so-called song end insectiverous groups. Such are, however, to be anticipated. For example, the common robin has increased so rapidly under federal protection that it may sometime become necessary to take steps to protect small fruit and other crops against their depredations. Knowledge of the actual birds responsible for the damage will at such times be invaluable. The Herring Gull is another species that has made inordinate increases under the protection of federal law, and in some places they are responsible for considerable damage. By controlling the number of eggs that are allowed to hatch, it is possible to regulate the population of this bird and if such operations are concentrated in the colonies that supply the birds involved, all interests are properly served. Other species of gulls eventually enter this picture as well."

Lack of space prevents the citing of more than one or two specific instances where bird banding has produced results of definite economic application, so these are limited to the following which are reported by Assistant Biologist Johnson A. Neff of the Sacramento, California, office of the U. S. Biological Survey. In a letter to the writer, Mr. Neff reports: "In the huge triangle formed roughly by Stockton, Sacramento, and Antioch or Pittsburgh, and Vallejo, damage to crops by blackbirds is severe in some locations. Upon inspecting sunflower damage near Brentwood, I found that the population was largely Agelaius tricolor. Now this species does not nest abundantly in that immediate area. On the other hand, banding of some 12,000 nestling tricolors during the last six years in various marshes in Merced County has furnished definite evidence that the major fly-way for these birds is northwesterly into the immediate area where the sunflower damage was occurring. Here two factors seem clear. First, the breeding area of the blackbirds doing severe damage was nearly 100 miles south; second, from even the economic standpoint alone, attempting to control blackbirds on the sunflower-producing ranch was utterly impractical under the apparent evidence that we could control on a few hundred acres (of breeding ground) possibly most of the blackbird population of two or three counties."

Mr. Neff also cites the case of Gambel Sparrows which, in the interior valleys of California, "may destroy every ornamental or truck plantlet that germinates between November and March in the ranch garden. Since this is definitely a migratory sub-species, it was my first opinion that succeeding waves of migrating birds would continue to flood any certain specific ranch or district, and that the only method of preventing damage was by repellents or by plant cover frames. Some banding done under my supervision and discussion with a number of Southern California banders, however, has developed the fact that very often as high as 35 or 40 percent of the Gambel Sparrows return each year to the same station. Such percentage might be said to justify control measures in such locations, if the damage were severe enough to warrant the destructive methods." In this case the fact, determinable only by banding, that the same individuals remained throughout the year rather than successive waves of migrants passed through, as was thought before banding was carried on, put an utterly different aspect on the matter and indicated an entirely different and much less expensive means of control.

The instances just cited are indicative of the importance which facts ascertainable only by banding may play in establishing control methods in cases of very definite economic importance. The illusive feature in the whole project of banding lies in the fact that the banding of a certain species may go on for years, the knowledge obtained therefrom being of no apparent value whatever and the time apparently wasted, when suddenly the species comes into the economic spotlight and all of the knowledge about its habits becomes of crucial importance in immediately establishing methods of protection or control, as the case may be. If this information had to be obtained after the emergency developed, it would be not only costly, but probably too slow to do any good.

For several years, a number of field men of the National Park Service have been actively cooperating with the Biological Survey in the nationwide program of obtaining information regarding the habits and activities of birds through banding. In the Southwest, banding has been carried on in Grand Canyon National Park, Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, and in nine monuments of the Southwestern National Monuments group. The greater part of this work has been done primarily to determine specific facts regarding the local habits of certain species in order to answer visitor questions. More park and monument visitors express an interest in birds than in any other natural history subject except, perhaps, flowers. At Grand Canyon National Park, such questions arise as, "Do birds cross the Grand Canyon, or does the Canyon act as a barrier to many mammals as well as to birds?" "If birds cross the canyon, do they fly directly across, or do they follow down one slope and up the other?" "Do birds use the canyon as a flyway, following the winding course of the Colorado River as a travel route?" These and many problems of a similar nature face the interpretative staff of every Park Service area, and no technique except banding supported by other approved methods of bird study, has yet been devised to answer them.

Although the National Park Service is not set up to sponsor exhaustive programs of primary research, the demands of the interpretative program, together with the policy of providing visitors with accurate and complete answers to their questions, require a certain amount of actual fact-finding activity in the field. Interpretative personnel must be competent accurately to identify local species of flora and fauna in the field, as much to answer visitor queries as to assure a sound basis for observation records and such required reports as the annual wildlife census. Bird banding, which enables the station operator to handle and closely scrutinize individual birds is far superior to field observations as a means of familiarizing personnel with identification details.

As a conservation agency, the National Park Service has an enormous sphere of influence. Minds of visitors in parks and monuments are open to explanations of approved conservation methods and the basic scientific reasons for them. Trained members of the Service staffs are in demand as outside speakers before service clubs, student assemblies, and hobby groups, such as garden organizations, in towns and cities near parks and monuments, and an important opportunity is provided for spreading the gospel of conservation. An enormous amount of good may be accomplished in bringing to the attention of local farmer groups the injury done to their own interests by the widespread practice of indiscriminately killing hawks and owls. Operation of banding stations keeps an interpretative staff up to date on these matters as well as providing bands and similar supplies and equipment useful as illustrative material.

There are a number of minor ways in which a small bird-banding project is indirectly of aid to the interpretative program of a park or monument. Captured birds prove valuable subjects for photographs, otherwise vary difficult to obtain, for making projection slides for illustrating campfire and hotel talks. Data obtained by banding is of assistance in supporting facts for observation records and the wildlife census report. Park Service areas are unique in providing wildlife relationships but slightly effected by the presence of mankind where bird banding may be carried on by qualified operators trained to utilize data obtained. Similar areas outside of the Service are so inaccessible as to provide little opportunity for banding stations. Findings obtained in Park Service areas should eventually be of importance in supporting or disproving theories regarding primitive regions. Trained personnel and the permanent basis of Park Service stations make possible the continuance of a project which, when operators are privately employed, may be terminated at any time. Thus the knowledge obtained should be of more value to the Biological Survey's nationwide program. Since records acquired from the entire nation, and also from bird banding station operators in Canada (where the project is under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of National Parks) are available through the Biological Survey, much assistance may be obtained by Service personnel to be brought to bear on local problems.

A recent communciation from Park Naturalist M. V. Walker of Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks stated, in part: "Bird banding was started here by Mr. Clifford Presnall late in 1934 and was continued off and on until January, 1937 ... That the project of bird banding is of inestimable value to the bander himself is perhaps its best point of argument, for one who carefully and scientifically carries on such a project is bound to learn much concerning species, habits, migration times, and food requirements." However, Walker warned, banding takes considerable time which often cannot be spared from other duties, and identifications must be accurately made or the work is more than useless.

Acting Park Naturalist Louis Schellbach wrote that banding has been carried on continuously at Grand Canyon National Park since 1932, yielding much new and valuable data concerning local problems and migration routes in the Great Basin. He said: "Banding is carried on at all seasons of the year as time and opportunity permit, aided by CCC personnel when available and performed mostly by interested park residents. In a region formerly thought deficient in bird life, through bird banding stations and observation records Grand Canyon National Park is producing some interesting results, records, and material for further study."

As at Grand Canyon, much of the banding in the Southwestern National Monuments is accomplished by wives of the personnel, and other individuals who are especially interested and have time available. The greater portion of record keeping detail is also accomplished by persons not on the Park Service payroll, field men spending only the time necessary to verify identifications and to check and transmit records and reports. The Southwest, therefore, makes its contribution to the bird banding program with a negligible use of government time.

In conclusion, it is well to remember that, although true scientific research may appear to be a waste of time, the values of these records are "cumulative and unpredictable". Parasites found in smears of blood taken from birds captured in banding traps indicate that birds may possibly act as host carriers of human diseases. Dr. C.B. Worth of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research is conducting exhaustive studies on this important subject this winter. The homing instinct of cowbirds (2), five out of 23 of which returned a distance of over 1,000 miles in from 14 to 30 days, indicates the possible value of this species as message carriers in time of war. As yet, possibilities in these secondary values of bird banding may only be guessed at, the primary ones, according to Dr. Lincoln (7) being, "from the viewpoint of the Biological Survey, the solution of problems concerned with the distribution and migration of North American birds. In this, every station operator is a potential factor. A great many problems, however are ready at hand for each cooperator, any one of which, when worked out to its logical conclusion, may furnish the basis for an important contribution to ornithological science".

And the matter of the economic importance of any human activity, although customarily associated with the accunnulation of wealth, might be considered thoughtfully in the terms of Henderson (5), "Whatever tends to make the world happier and better, is of direct material value".


(1) Baldwin, S. Prentiss - Marriage Relations of the House Wren; the Auk, Vol. 38, No. 2, April 1921.
(2) Baldwin, S. Prentiss - Recent Returns from Trapping and Banding Birds; The Auk, Vol. 38, No. 2, April 1921.
(3) Bent, A. C. - Life Histories of North American Woodpeckers; U. S. National Museum Bulletin No. 174.
(4) Cottam and Utter - Birds in Relation to Fishes (mimeo); U.S. Biological Survey, Leaflet B.S. No. 83.
(5) Henderson, Junius - Practical Value of Birds; University of Colorado Bulletin Vol. 13, No. 4, 1913.
(6) Ivey, J. C. - Conservation of Wildlife in Alabama (mms). 1931.
(7) Lincoln, Frederick C. - History and Purposes of Bird Banding; The Auk, Vol. 38, No. 2, April 1921.
(8) Lincoln, Frederick C. - Migration of North American Birds; U. S. D. A. Circular No. 363, October 1935.
(9) Lincoln and Baldwin - Manual for Bird Banders; U. S. D. A. Miscellaneous Publication, No. 58, 1929.
(10) Mason, Edwin A. - Amateur Bird Bander; Natural History Magazine, Vol. XLIV.
(11) Pearson, T. G. - The Mourning Dove; Educational Leaflet No. 2, National Association of Audubon Societies.
(12) U. S. Biological Survey - Bird Banding Notes; Vol. 3, No. 1, October, 1939.
(13) Western Bird Banding Association - News from the Bird Banders; Vol. 13, 1938; La Jolla, California.

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Date: 17-Nov-2005