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 the blog!
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 is a critical piece for bird safety during bird banding.
Are you uncomfortable with the use of the word fondle yet? Just wait.
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.
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.
Sounds amazing right? But as it always goes, there was a price to pay. First, this required living in an off-grid bamboo house in the middle of the Ecuadorian coastal forest including all the jungle's finest amenities like limited, if any electricity; composting toilets, cold showers, and no windows or doors to make your jungle experience all the more authentic. Ok it is like camping, right? Wrong. The beds - moldy, the data - moldy, the food - count down to moldy, everything you brought down there - you guessed it, moldy. And the roommates are questionable. There was Terrance, the tarantula who lived under the stairs, Monty - the roof boa, the troop of bullet ants that made their nightly patrol of the dish rack, Rufus - the House Wren that ensured no intern would sleep past 6 am, and of course the nameless cockroaches, the rats, and the giant orb weavers. Yes, I lived here for almost a year.
So maybe that is not bad for a couple of weeks. But we have not even gotten into the fieldwork. Let me paint you a picture. You wake up at 4:30 am, lightly step over Terrance, brush off the bullet ants from the coffee mugs, check to see if the coffee is moldy, make yourself a cup of that sweet joe, pack up your gear, and you are ready for the field. It is an average 45 min hike to the banding station, and of course, it is uphill all the way. Half the time you are fighting the mud not to slide back down from whence you came and as for the other half, you are jumping over your pick of venomous snakes like the fer-de-lance (one of the Latin America's deadliest and most aggressive snakes) or coral snakes. When you arrive at the banding station, you are fighting spikey bamboo, acting much like barbed wire, to clear the paths for the net lanes; then picking monkey poo out of the mist nets to make way for those amazing birds you heard so much about. And lest you forget, it is the tropics so the rain might start pouring down at any given minute.
Do you want to volunteer for bird banding?
And that is only an average day. I have had days where I was out in the field with Dengue fever, days where cicadas outnumbered birds in the nets, instances when brushing past a seemingly innocuous plant left a rash for days, hikes up which were peppered with emergency bathroom trips into the bushes; days where my entire body was covered in chigger bites, where I spent hours removing hundreds, yes hundreds, of ticks from my clothes, where I hiked up to the sites days on end with leishmaniasis (a flesh-eating protist) eating away at my ankle. Was it worth it? For me, as someone who has found themselves continually enamored and in awed by the tropics, it certainly was. But now you may understand when I say tropical biology is not for the faint of heart.
Keep in mind, not all banding operations and not all fieldwork is quite so hardcore. But still, behind every bird in the hand, there is a lot of hard work, insect bites, and exhaustion. And if this post scared you straight, consider that there are many aspects to bird banding projects and bird research, including data analysis and social media, which while equally important are not quite so physically demanding. So the next time you ogle those oh so sexy bird fondling photos on Instagram, think about all the work that's going on behind the scenes and consider that the data behind those photos is hard-earned, going towards better protecting and understanding our declining bird populations. And that my friends, is the price of fondles.
Want to see more epic fondles from Ecuador? Check out my Instagram @orn.ecology
Want to learn more about tropical birds? Here are our top recommendations for the best field guides to Central America, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Mexico!
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