Louisiana Bird Observatory’s Founder on Why Bird Banding Matters

From monitoring disease to tracking migration, a bird in the hand reveals a wealth of information.

Growing up, Jared Wolfe spent his weekends volunteering at bird observatories in Northern California, where “you can throw a rock and hit a bird bander.” When he moved to Louisiana for grad school four years ago, Wolfe, 33, quickly discovered that the state didn’t have a single year-round banding station. So he teamed up with Eric Johnson, Audubon Louisiana’s director of bird conservation, and partnered with the Baton Rouge Audubon Society to found the Louisiana Bird Observatory.


Why site the project at the Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center?

The swamp is near Baton Rouge and has patches of mature forest, so it’s an ideal place to study how bird communities surrounded by human enterprise are faring. We run the nets twice a month; we open them 15 minutes prior to sunrise, and operate for five hours, banding any new birds. Several dedicated volunteers are trained to capture and handle the birds, and then a lot of people from the community show up to take photos or log data; they don’t want to get into the nitty-gritty of running a station—putting up nets, getting birds out of nets, banding birds—they just want to be part of the process. We now have three sites in Baton Rouge, one in Abbeville, and one in New Orleans.


How do the banding stations aid bird conservation?

We documented the first painted bunting with a bill deformity; we subsequently recaptured the bird, providing the first growth rate of bill deformity in wild birds. There’s massive petrochemical infrastructure in the area, so we’re partnering with the Biological Research Institute to take blood samples and monitor contaminants, particularly mercury, and see if it influences survivorship. We’re also working with a biologist to assess avian malaria and avian pox. Ideally, we’ll be able to create a model that predicts how interactions between disease, contaminants, and habitat fragmentation affect bird populations in the area.


Tell us about the work you do with schoolchildren.

Classes come to the swamp once a week in the summer. At the banding station the kids get to feel the heartbeat of an indigo bunting, and their eyes light up. They’re infatuated. This summer we’re planning to launch a project with our sister station in Costa Rica. We’ll do Skype sessions, so the kids at our station will interact with kids there in real time. I think it’s really, really cool to make connections between local birds and the birds they’re capturing in Costa Rica.


You’ve teamed up with Audubon to study prothonotary warbler migration. What does that involve?

We want to follow the birds’ migratory pathway. We built a lot of nest boxes in the swamp, and then targeted birds that returned two to three years in a row, so we know they’re site-faithful. This past spring we put geolocators on three birds; it’s one of the first times anyone has attached the tracking devices to any warblers. When they return to their nest boxes this spring, we’ll be waiting to recover the geolocators and find out where they’ve been. They could be going into the Caribbean, to Central America, we don’t know where this population is going. It’ll be really cool to figure this out.

For more on the Louisiana Bird Observatory, go to facebook.com/labirdobservatory.

This story originally ran in the March-April 2014 issue as "Band Leader."