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The Price of Fondles

You might be wondering to yourself, how do fondles relate to a bird blog? And no, I'm not referring to Jeffrey Epstein style touching here. If that joke did not offend you off this site, then you are the perfect person to subscribe to our site!

Crowned Woodnymph. ©Holly Garrod
Crowned Woodnymph. ©Holly Garrod

Have you ever seen those up-close bird portrait shots, people magically holding birds in their hands, Disney-princess style? And have you thought to yourself, how do they do it? The answer: bird banding, or as some of us in the ornithology profession call it, bird fondling. Now before you get up in arms at the idea of fondling wild birds - bird banding is always conducted with a scientific research purpose, with full consideration of the safety and welfare of the birds being fondled. Extensive training and constant assessment of techniques are critical for bird safety during bird banding.

Are you uncomfortable with the use of the word fondle yet? Just wait.

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A career in bird banding? Think again.

Now on the surface, as Fergie would say, it's a glamourous life. As an ornithologist and bird bander, I've traveled to 7 different countries and fondled over 10,000 birds. Whoa, you might think to yourself, that's a lot of fondles.

So let me start out by clearing up a common misunderstanding, bird banding is not a career. Bird banding is a tool used by many scientists and researchers to better understand bird populations - specifically by getting a better idea of body condition and age, which can only be determined by having a bird in the hand. While many wildlife jobs may involve bird handling and banding, they will employ a variety of different census techniques, including point counts, vegetation surveys, migration counts, statistical analyses, pit-fall trapping, tracking, the list goes on. There is no such thing as a professional bird bander.

Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant. ©Holly Garrod
Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant. ©Holly Garrod

The human cost for fondling birds

Next, let's get into what's going on behind those fancy fondled feathers. For every bird that is fondled, there is a sacrifice that must be made. Often it's forfeiting sleeping in late, forgoing a comfortable place to stay; and many, many, many biting insects accompanied by brutal stinging plants. Is it worth it to hold a wild bird? Decide for yourself.

Let me regale you the tale of a banding station.

The place: coastal Ecuador.

The birds: over 300 species.

The biodiversity: epic.

Our capture rates were not high, but our species counts were impressive - in 20 birds caught, we typically sampled 18 different species. And some of those were quite the impressive fondles - glittering gems of hummingbirds, cryptic but classy woodcreepers, stunning spectra of tanagers, fierce but regal flycatchers (looking at you, Scale-crested Pygmy Tyrant), and of course, more bill than bird, the toucans. There's a reason biologists drool over the tropics - the biodiversity is mind-boggling, and even crazier is how little is actually known about so many of these seemingly common species. For a biologist, it is like being a kid in a candy shop.