Winter beckons and migratory birds have started arriving. When we see one, questions naturally come to mind: Where did it come from? Where will it return to? These questions are not restricted to migrant birds: we often want to know the movement of birds which reside here year-round.
Birders try to answer these questions by tagging wild birds.
The most popular method for tagging is called ringing: you catch a bird, place a thin, encoded metallic or plastic ring around its feet or wings, and set it free. It provides a way to track the movements and life history of the bird.
Ringing is a sophisticated technique that takes months to learn and years to master. The difficulty is compounded because very few places can manufacture the rings which must include identification numbers and location information. According to its founder Enam Ul Haque, the Bangladesh Bird Club started ringing birds in 2010. The club sent two members to the UK to train with the British Trust of Ornithology. Subsequently, experts from abroad have come here every year to train and conduct bird ringing camps.
The result: in nine years, seventeen young scientists have been trained and 10,000 birds have been ringed in Bangladesh.
Last Saturday I had the opportunity to observe bird ringing in Rajshahi. The team comprised of Matt Prior and Sam Layley from the British Trust for Ornithology working with Onu Tareq of the Bird Club and Zenin Azmiri of IUCN. They had been working since dawn in a mixed grove of trees and bushes by the Padma river. Nearby, a rope stretched out like a clothesline. Several white cotton bags, tied with drawstrings, were hanging from the rope. They held the morning's catch of birds.
When my friend Niaz and I arrived the team was working with a Greater Coucal. The bird stayed remarkably calm as it was inspected, measured and weighed with infinite care; this data (and other information) was entered into a notebook. Then, rings were placed around its legs using a plier-like tool.
Finally the bird was released. This too requires finesse. “Usually I release it in such a gentle way that it does not even realize it is free – it just flies away spontaneously,” Matt told me later.
We walked over to check the fine nets – set up like tennis nets - near the trees. Sure enough, a bird was caught in one of them. As Matt retrieved it, I scrutinized it but could not recognize it.
This, I later learned, was another benefit of ringing. Enam said that bird species that are not easily seen or photographed can be caught in mist nets. The first record (or sighting) in Bangladesh of ten different bird species were made after they were caught in nets for ringing. These included Sykes's Nightjar, a bird of the middle-east and western India which was never seen this far to the east.
There are several other methods of tagging birds. These include tagging their wings or attaching radio transmitters, and placing distinctive flags – easily identified from a distance with binoculars – on their feet.
Soon it was time to move on. Impressed by their dedication and discipline, Niaz and I said good bye to the ringing team by the river and moved on to our next Rajshahi adventure.
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