Wednesday, July 14, 2010

High Adventure: Tales of a Suburban Dove-Banding Warrior Goddess

"Oh yeah," I whispered as I peered through binoculars into our front yard.

"Oh yeah, baby. You know you want it. Just a few more inches..."

Behind me, I heard the sound of Boyfriend's footsteps pause in the hallway behind my home office.

"What, are you working for a phone sex company now?" he asked.

"Hell no - if I were, I'd be making a lot more money," I retorted.

I backed slowly away from the window and turned to him. "I've got three working the trap, and one is in the chute, but he keeps backing out."

Yep. I'm doing what is strictly forbidden for most people. Read more...
I'm baiting, trapping, banding and examining migratory birds - mourning doves - as an authorized agent of the California Department of Fish and Game.

And wow, is it deliciously fun! Not that I'm eating them. Even though they look very tasty. That would be very, very illegal.

This all came about when I got an email from Bill Templin of the North Area Sportsmen's Association mentioning that DFG was looking for people interested in banding. All I had to do was attend a brief class conveniently located just a few miles from my house.

After my experience last summer banding ducks in the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuges, I knew right away this was something I wanted to do, particularly as DFG made it clear you could band in your own yard if you wanted to.

We have TONS of doves in our neighborhood year-round. This would be a chance to see them very close, and contribute to the body of knowledge about these birds. One thing the biologists are interested in learning is what the urban dove population is like, so I fit into the study perfectly.

And even with just one week of banding under my belt, I'm learning a lot too. For example:

1. My front yard is perfect for this. Boyfriend and I have an unusual front yard: We stripped out the front lawn a couple years ago, covered most of the soil with landscape paper and mulch and left a few drought-tolerant plants that don't require much - if any - watering, once established. And oh yeah, Boyfriend fancies himself to be a modern-day Johnny Appleseed, so he's always spreading wildflower seed in the front yard.

All spring, the yard is a riot of color, filled with poppies, California poppies, two-toned tidy tips and some other random lovely flowers. For about two months, the whole neighborhood gawks appreciatively. Then in June, all the flowers go to seed and die, and the neighbors all wish to hell I'd clean that crap up.

So I do. And that makes it PERFECT for doves. As soon as I start pulling the dead flowers, the doves can't wait to get in there, because it is 1) very open, and they like being able to see predators, 2) a perfect color - they blend in with the mulch, and 3) loaded with seed. They'd come to our yard even if I weren't baiting, but when I throw big, bright piles of safflower on the ground, that really seals the deal.

2. Doves can be infuriating. Witness this:

What we have here is one in the trap, which is a simple wire cage; one in the funnel-tipped chute, which works like a lobster trap - easy to get through from the outside, but much harder to find the exit once you're inside; and one outside. This was my first or second day of banding, and Boyfriend and I watched this scene from the living room.

When I saw that second dove in the chute, I thought to myself, "Score! A two-fer!" So I waited for that one to go in. Then he backed out. And then, I'll be damned, the one in the trap actually found his way out. WTF?

After that, I resolved to be less greedy: The minute I see one in the trap, I go band it.

3. Banding ain't easy. The bands are tiny, which is one reason you see me wearing my "Yes, I'm Over 40" reading glasses. The birds squirm a lot when you hold them, which can send an unclamped band flying. Getting the pliers around the band without knocking it off and without accidentally clamping a toe or something is tough.

Here's the drill:

First, before you collect any other data, band the bird:

Next, check for signs on the wing that indicate age:

Record your observations:

Set that bird free!

Most of the time it goes well and the biggest problem is whether you can actually determine the age and sex of the bird. That isn't really a problem, though. They drilled into our heads that "unknown" is a perfectly acceptable answer, that just knowing that this dove was alive in this location on this date is important information.

But one day I made a huge mistake: The band wasn't quite clamped all the way, and I know that rough edges can be really bad for the bird's leg (I know on ducks, it can end up severing their poor little feet off). So I used the tip of the pliers, not the rounded portion for clamping, to seal it a little tighter. I was horrified when one edge of the band slipped under the other, and in zero seconds flat, the band was wrapped tightly around the bird's leg.

Panic! If I let this bird fly with the band like that, I had NO doubt it would ultimately amputate its little leg. I had to do something.

I couldn't hold onto the bird with one hand and get any traction on the band, so I called out Boyfriend.

He couldn't undo it by hand, so he went looking for a variety of frightening tools that looked like they could crush the poor bird, which, not surprisingly, was not happy.

Sweat poured off of both of us as we worked to undo my big mistake. Finally, a combination of regular pliers and needle-nosed pliers did the trick, miraculously without harming the bird. I quickly clamped a fresh band on the poor little guy and let him go.

I'd had a back-up plan, which I was later able to confirm was a good one: Put the bird in a paper bag (which I learned when rescuing a robin that smacked into our kitchen window - it provides a calm, semi-dark refuge), then find my closest wildlife rehab center, or absent that, a veterinarian. Good to know, but I won't be using the tips of my banding pliers EVER AGAIN.

4. I'm not the only one who loves doves.

I really love doves. When I watch them with binoculars as they work my traps, I notice that they look particularly plump. When I'm done banding, I cup my hands in front of my face and inhale deeply - doves have a distinctive, spicy aroma, even fully clothed. That's the kind of aromatherapy I'm talkin' about, baby!

But one day while my traps were set, I went out to bring in the garbage cans from the street. When I did, I spooked our indoor-outdoor cat-friend, Harlequin, who'd been reclining in the shade of a neighbor's car.

That's funny - she usually doesn't spend time in the front yard.

Then I noticed two other neighborhood cats under the same car - Shiloh and Blue Cat, both toms, not normally the type to congregate. What the hell were they all doing together?

Oh, I see how it is. They were hoping to get to the doves before I could.

Legally, I only have to check the traps every hour. Because it's easy - and fun - to monitor them from my house, I actually check every five or 10 minutes, and if I see doves in the yard, I'll watch more obsessively.

But now that I've seen all the neighborhood cats taking a sudden interest in our front yard, I monitor the traps very closely for the birds' protection.

Just last night, I was picking a young-of-the-year dove out of my trap when Allie - the fuzzy cat pictured above - caught wind of the commotion and came running over to me.

"HANK!!!" I yelled toward the house. "Hank! Come help!"

Fortunately, Allie is not a disciplined huntress, so Boyfriend was able to lure her away with some scritching while I clamped on the band, confirmed the bird's age and released it. Whew! Stoopid cats!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Naturally, I'm feeling pretty protective about these birds, so it leaves me somewhat melancholy knowing that in 49 days, they'll be legal game for armed humans, if they bother to fly out of our little seed-laden suburban area into territory where people can shoot them.

Hell, I could end up shooting one of them. Like I said, I love doves. They're tasty.

But I still love being part of this process. Just like when I was banding ducks last summer, I find it refreshing to be able to handle them and get close to them while they're still alive. Normally, any wild animal I find in my hands is dead and bloody.

And I really like knowing that I'm helping to provide vital data.

You can help too. If you'd like to band doves in California next year (too late this year), check with DFG for classes held between March 1 and June 1.

And this year, if you shoot a banded dove, or if you're not a hunter and you find one dead, please make sure you report it. There's a new website that centralizes reporting: And yes, if you're my age, you'll need reading glasses to see the band number.

It's worth checking for that bling, because four years ago, they banded a bunch of doves with reward bands - the kind that pay $100 or so when you report them. While most doves don't live that long, they can - someone once found a banded dove that was thirty-two years old.

While you're at it, I wouldn't mind if you let me know about it too. There's no provision for us banders to find out when, where and how our banded birds are found, but I really want to know. So if you get one anywhere on the West Coast this year, it wouldn't hurt to leave a comment here or email me with the band number.

Helping science is good and all, but it's the personal connection that makes this worthwhile.

Update: Sitting in the kitchen, I just saw two doves come in for a landing on the roof of the shed in our back yard. Binoculars confirmed it: They were two of my banded babies!

Fifteen minutes later, they and another friend headed to the front yard, finally in shade from today's blistering sun, to do some feeding. It wasn't long before one was in the trap. I plucked him out and he had a band too - just trapped him yesterday, and he was already back in the trap. Not too bright, that one. But pretty nonetheless.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010


Tovar@AMindfulCarnivore said...

Neat, Holly. What a great thing to get involved in!

sportingdays said...

So cool. Good work.

Holly Heyser said...

Just got another one - young of the year. Woot!

Anonymous said...

Very cool process and cool they let regular people do it too! I once got to tag a bear (with our local DNR) and found out that it was shot the next year (legally) 100 miles away from where I tagged it.

Hope you get to find where some of your banded doves end up. It's fun to know the rest of the story.

Holly Heyser said...

Oh, Kari, how cool is that? Glad he was taken legally. Of course, I guess if he was poached, you'd never know. I don't know about bears, but I've been primed to expect that most of the birds we're banding won't be recovered (or reported).

Shewee woman said...

I always love your adventures, thanks for another fun blog, I may check here in PA and see if we have a program like that.

Holly Heyser said...

Check with your DNR/DFG equivalent, but also check with your local game animal organizations (e.g., DU, Pheasants Forever). US Fish & Wildlife is another good source.

I did duck banding last summer with two groups: USFWS at a national wildlife refuge, and Cal Waterfowl contract banders at the same refuge. A friend who lives near the refuge made the connections for me.

It seems they're very happy to have volunteers - more banding = more data.

SimplyOutdoors said...

What a great little activity/project, Holly. It sounds very cool, and I'm going to have to check into finding something like to do around here.

We can't hunt doves in Michigan, so I'm not sure if any banding happens or not, but I know I have a ton of them around my house.

I can't wait to see if someone actually finds one you banded, and lets you know "the rest of the story."

Cheryl Hargraves said...

This may be a silly question, but can you read the band if you have binoculars, or only if you're holding one? We sometimes get some doves in our yard here in so cal. I'll try to check them out if I don't have to nab the little guys to do it.

Holly Heyser said...

Update! Two of my banded babies returned to our yard today and I was able to get a shot of them showing their bands - it's at the end of the post, if anyone's interested in seeing it. Not a great shot - I'm no wildlife photographer - but I was pretty excited to see them hanging around and in good health.

Holly Heyser said...

And oh yeah, Cheryl, forgot to respond: You definitely can't read band numbers with binoculars. They're TINY.

Maybe if I had a quality 600mm lens, I might be able to catch it in a photo. But I don't have such a thing.

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

This post got me wondering what kinds of live, wild animals I'd ever touched. Frogs, snakes, lizards, fish. But I don't think a bird or mammal, ever.

To not just touch them, but smell them, all in the name of science, is most excellent.

So is being a DFG agent. Do you get a badge?

Holly Heyser said...

I think the smell is the most unexpected part, though I should really know that from hunting. Lord, I could sure smell gadwall after I banded ducks last summer, but that's because they crapped all over us.

No badge for this job - just a piece of paper. But if I get injured in action, I get worker's comp from the state. Of course, I'm already a state worker, so the state would have to pay one way or another anyway...

Sadly, the banding has slowed. I see lots banded birds returning, and the unbanded ones are pretty wary these days. Hoping for one more tonight before I have to go out of town for a week.

Ingrid said...

Holly, this really is a dear story (not a deer story). First, your hand grip on the dove is great (ha). Yeah, I can't help it. I notice those things. That's how we hold them when we're medicating. (Well not doves. Doves, unlike other birds, have to be medicated with long, curved-tip syringes.)

Second, I was really impressed with yours and Boyfriend's ability to get that bad band off. It is not easy. I watch my vet here do it, and it's a delicate operation I shy away from. (I've been in the opposite position lately, getting bands off lost and unwanted domestic birds. Those are a bear.)

I swear, Holly, you're designed for work with animals. I know you probably prefer hunting. But if you ever get a hankering . . . you would be like my husband, who has his country boy roots and just jumps in and grabs the raptor. Me, I lose time weighing my least-harm options. :)

Third, I love the sensibility and care you describe evolving as you take in these doves. The aroma. Yes, healthy pigeons have that, too. Very similar to doves, makes sense, given their common taxonomy. You definitely know when a bird is sick. Smell is one of the things you notice.

I got a genuine feel for your efforts in this piece. Thanks for posting it.

(Wish I could post more about my endeavors in the blog. As I've said, until I'm an indie-rehabber, I'm confined by the standards of my facility which I gladly abide -- respect. My goal, though, is to go rogue. I have plans in place.)

Holly Heyser said...

Ya know, it's a lot easier to get bands off ducks. I once put a medium sized band on a mallard, and it was no problem getting it off with spreaders. With the right tools, it wouldn't be bad for a properly banded dove, but yeah, it was scary for my little guy. I keep hoping I re-trap him so I can see s/he's OK (young of the year, couldn't sex him).

I actually have thought of working in wildlife rehab because I love animals and when I'm not killing them, I'm usually going out of my way to be kind to them or help them. But I don't know if it's the kind of thing I can do just a little, and I can't afford to do anything else right now that takes a lot of time. Hell, even banding has dominated my time this summer because I check the traps so frequently.

And thanks re the grip. It's exactly what they taught us and it works pretty well, though thrusting the leg out - and keeping it out - isn't super easy.

Ingrid said...

though thrusting the leg out - and keeping it out - isn't super easy.

Yeah, for sure. We have birds who get topical medication because of bruising and injuries. Cat caught is the absolute worst in terms of the damage they do. So, imagine that same grip, but then having to switch the bird from hand to hand, turn it in your hand without letting it get away, blowing on feathers to find the bruises, gently pulling out each wing, careful not to crush the tail feathers (that's 6 months worth of rehab if you damage tail feathers) and simultaneously swabbing spots on shoulders and elbows and abdomens with the meds. Doves aren't so bad, they're pretty docile. But monster human hands on a little chickadee or warbler is quite nerve-wracking in terms of holding the bird firmly enough to prevent escape, but not too firmly -- not to mention I should be wearing reading glasses and can't see a thing. Then trying to do it fast but carefully so as not to stress them for too long. It does take a while to get it all down. So I think you're ahead of the game. :)