KOKOMO, Ind. – A class that starts at 7 a.m. is for the birds — literally.
A dozen students in an Indiana University Kokomo ornithology class spent one early Friday morning learning about campus wildlife with a visit from a master bird bander, who demonstrated how birds are captured, marked, and released, as part of a research field experience.
“Students get more engaged in studying birds after an experience like this, where they see first-hand how we track them,” said Lina Rifai, associate professor of vertebrate biology. “They get to see how we collect the data, and also see the birds up close. They usually see them from far away, through binoculars. They see more of the personality of the bird, like the cardinal that kept biting my finger.”
Her class usually includes a field trip to the Mary Gray Bird Sanctuary in Connersville, which is owned by the Indiana Audubon Society. For this session, however, she invited master bander Amy Wilms and her team to campus, so students could be part of the process from setting up the nets to tear down, and also gain an appreciation for campus wildlife.
Before the sun even rose, they were out in the clearing just north of the Kelley House, and in the woods setting up mist nets, which resemble lightweight volleyball nets, to gently traps birds to be studied. Rifai noted that those handling the birds have been trained and received a permit, so they know how to do so without injuring them.
Then, they wait. It takes about an hour for the first bird, a cardinal, to fly into the net. It’s placed in a breathable bag, and carried up to a banding station, where Rifai gently attaches a numbered band to its leg, then begins taking its vital statistics — length of foot, beak length, skull measurements, wing and tail length, body fat percentage, age, and weight.
The feisty cardinal is having none of it, continually clamping its beak down on Rifai’s finger and she holds it in a bander’s grip, which holds the wings down without putting pressure on its chest.
Minutes later, she places the bird on student Joseph Hackett’s open hand, and allows it to fly away.
Hackett said they’ve read and talked about how researchers band birds, but it was more interesting to see it and be able to ask questions during the process.
“I like that we’re part of field work, and getting out and seeing the birds in real life,” said Hackett, from Kokomo.
As they wait for the next bird to examine, students watch and listen for birds, working together to identify the calls they hear. The class has made them more aware of the birds around them.
“It’s interesting how these birds have always been around, but we weren’t paying attention to them as much,” said Christyn Gephart, Frankfort.
“I’ve noticed that even when I’m not here, I hear birds, and I’m like, ‘Wait a minute, I know what you are,’” said Savanna McGee, from Carmel. “It’s much easier to identify them when they are right here close.”
Even though they only banded two birds — the second is a white breasted nuthatch — Rifai called the day a success.
“Today, there wasn’t much activity, and that’s how research is sometimes,” she said. “It’s nice to show them that on good days and bad, you can still learn something from it. They understand how much work it is to get this information, and how much research it takes to learn about birds.”
The research day was part of the Kokomo Experience and You (KEY) program, which provides students chances to connect with people and participate in real-world experiences.