Answer Man Solves Mystery of Bird Bands

A Nashville warbler with metal bands and color markers.
A Nashville warbler with metal bands and color markers. (Courtesy Of U.s. Geological Survey)
By John Kelly
Sunday, July 15, 2007

I was lunching at the Navy Memorial p laza on Pennsylvania Avenue NW this week. Cleaning up after the lunchtime crowd was a mixed flock of sparrows and starlings. Pretty ordinary birds for these parts. But one sparrow and one starling caught my eye. The sparrow had two tiny leg bands, one red and one blue. The starling had a longer band, solid white.

Who is studying these commoners? And what are they looking for? Or are these two part of a squadron of trained birds who on command can interlace their leg bands in midair to form a display of patriotic bunting?

-- Flawn Williams, Hyattsville

"You called the right place," said Monica Tomosy, chief of the Bird Banding Laboratory at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, when Answer Man phoned her. The Laurel facility helps keep track of thousands of banded birds from across North America. In fact, anyone who comes across a banded bird (or a banded bird carcass) can enter the information at or call 800-327-BAND.

As it happens, however, the birds in question aren't part of a migration study. They don't sport the numbered aluminum bands ornithologists affix to native species. Instead, these invasive species get unique, but non-numbered, combinations of colors. It's not the birds being studied. It's what's inside them: their blood. It's a way of tracking West Nile virus.

"We try to catch the same individuals over and over again," said Pete Marra of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, part of the National Zoo. "We'll catch one in May, then we'll catch the same bird two months later. . . . What often happens is the first time it's bled, it's negative for West Nile. As summer progresses, these birds will be exposed to the virus and develop antibodies after fighting off the virus."

The project also studies mosquitoes, the carriers of the virus. No, the insects' legs aren't affixed with teeny-tiny bands. The pests are killed in traps.

More than 63 million birds have been banded in this country since 1902, when a man named Paul Bartsch ringed more than 100 black-crowned night herons in the District of Columbia with bands inscribed: "Return to Smithsonian Institution."

Airmail, Answer Man presumes.

Why do most print articles reference a person's age even if it is not pertinent to the other information being reported? Sometimes, knowing the age can add interest, especially when a story involves a child or an accomplishment by a senior. Other times, it is important if the person referenced is wanted for a crime, but otherwise it adds no real value. Is this tradition?

-- Mary Ann Hartnett, College Park

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company