• warning: Parameter 2 to ed_classified_link_alter() expected to be a reference, value given in /home/soloneconomist/www/www/includes/common.inc on line 2968.
  • warning: Parameter 2 to ed_classified_link_alter() expected to be a reference, value given in /home/soloneconomist/www/www/includes/common.inc on line 2968.

For the birds

Area naturalists band together for feathered fun
Arlen Breiholz, an avid volunteer and member of the Iowa Ornithologists Union, releases a banded sparrow at an event Saturday, May 13, at Kent Park in Oxford. About 60 bird-watching enthusiasts witnessed the process at the Johnson County Conservation Education Center. (photo by Janet Nolte)

OXFORD– Bird nerds– they’re everywhere.
According to a 2011 survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, over 46 million Americans enjoy bird watching. Twenty-two percent of Iowans over the age of 16 are birders. And Johnson County is host to a thriving intergenerational and growing birding community.
Sophia Davis, who recently finished eighth grade at Northwest Junior High, was a member of the Iowa City Bird Club for four years.
“I’ve really been interested in birds my whole life,” said Sophia. “Then my dad watched some movie about birding and he said, ‘we should do this,’ so it just kind of evolved from there.”
Sophia said her dad likes to go on morning bird walks so they can observe birds in their natural habitat. She researches birds on the web and subscribes to newsletters. Like most birders, she keeps a list of all the species she spots.
“It’s taken me places I wouldn’t have normally gone to,” said Sophia. Like a family trip to Costa Rica. “My cousin went there with her school, and then we decided to go because we learned that the wildlife there was very diverse. So we went there to bird.”
Most bird watchers are drawn to the hobby for the beauty and immersion in the natural world, as well as the sheer fun and adventure of spotting and learning about many species. There’s also the thrill of witnessing and participating in the scientific study of birds up close.
East Central Iowans are lucky enough to have ample opportunity to do just that.
On Saturday, May 13, about 60 bird watching enthusiasts of all ages descended upon the Johnson County Conservation Education Center in Kent Park to observe a team of federally licensed banders and well-trained volunteers process birds temporarily captured throughout the park.
“For our public banding events, we do those twice a year– once in the spring and once in the fall,” said Sydney Algreen-Hunter, a naturalist at the Johnson County Conservation Department. “And then we also do banding events with different school groups if the weather works out and our banders are available.”
Algreen-Hunter, who develops educational programming at Kent Park, said anyone who happens to be at the Education Center on those days is invited to observe and interact with the banders, but most of the scheduled groups are elementary students, primarily second graders.
“Their curriculum is learning about life cycles and fits really well with what you can find outside in nature,” she noted.
Bird banding at Kent Park is a well-established program for collecting scientific data on the many species that nest and migrate throughout the 1,052-acre area.
“Every time we band a bird we have to record a certain set of information,” said Algreen-Hunter. Data– age, sex, weight, tail length and wing chord (an anatomical measurement often used to differentiate between subspecies)– from each bird is submitted to a national database managed by the U.S. Geological Survey. Anyone who recaptures a bird banded at Kent Park can look up the band number and find out its demographic details.
Algreen-Hunter said tracking bird populations through banding is especially important for species decreasing in number.
“For example, the golden-winged warbler we have caught here at Kent Park is a bird whose species numbers are on decline across the nation,” she said. “So it’s really great for us to see that we do have the habitat to support it. Then we can think about our management techniques and making sure that we continue to have that habitat.”
A 2012 graduate of Iowa State University with a background in forestry, Algreen-Hunter joined the staff of the Conservation Education Center about three years ago, not long before construction on a new bird blind was finished in the fall of 2014.
“It was built completely by our staff on our site, which is pretty amazing. And most of the funding for it came from donations of local bird enthusiasts, which I also think is pretty cool,” she said.
In a groundswell of support for the project, members of the Iowa City Bird Club donated $25,000 of the $27,000 invested in creating the spacious blind. Located on the end of the Education Center’s parking lot edged by woods, the rustic, cabin-like structure is wheel-chair accessible and designed to accommodate visitors of all ages with its windows at different heights and sturdy, comfortable benches.
The blind is open year round so anyone can come out and use it. On weekends, a volunteer fills the dozen or so feeders serving the winged residents of the park.
“And because of the bird blind, we have shifted a lot of our lesson plans to focus on bird watching since it’s such a great resource,” Algreen-Hunter said. “We’re really blessed in this community to have such interested outdoors people to help us take care of our natural resources and build bird blinds, fill feeders for us, check bluebird boxes, all that kind of stuff.”
The blind greatly facilitated the bird banding program.
“Without the blind it would be a lot less convenient to band on a regular basis out here. In the winter, we are able to band a lot more frequently because we can sit in the bird blind and then go get a bird as soon as it goes in the net,” noted Algreen-Hunter.
She added the public bird banding events are among the favorite parts of her job.
“It’s really challenging and takes a lot of studying and practice, but it’s really rewarding when you get to place a bird in a kid’s hand and just literally see their eyes widen and their mouth open in amazement,” she said.

Banding at Kent Park / MAPS project
Bird banding is a time-honored practice, dating back to 1595 in Europe when the leg of one of Henry IV’s peregrine falcons was “ringed” with a metal band for identification. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the King’s falcon was lost in France pursuing a bustard and recovered about a day later in Malta, some 1,350 miles away.
John James Audubon, the American naturalist and painter, introduced banding to North America in 1803.
By 1923, bird banding evolved into a scientific technique for wildlife research, administered jointly by governmental agencies in the U.S. and Canada.
Bird banding arrived at Kent Park when Mark Bowman and Robert Bradley, both certified to lead and train volunteers to assist with banding, established a MAPS project there in 2015.
MAPS– an acronym for Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship—is an intercontinental program created in 1989 by the Institute for Bird Populations.
According to Bowman, a former member of the Iowa City Bird Club and currently living in Newton, MAPS is a standardized scientific protocol that derives population vitality information from bird banding data. Data collection for the MAPS project overlaps with the demographic banding efforts done at Kent Park throughout the year, but it goes even further in terms of the science.
“That study is really rigorous,” noted Hunter-Algren. “If you’re doing a MAPS survey, you would also record things like fat content, feather wear and something called skulling… So it’s a lot more in-depth.”
“MAPS gathers more data and is more powerful and takes a lot more energy to do. It hinges on something called constant effort mist netting,” explained Bowman. “Constant effort is a jargon term, and in the setting of MAPs, it means that you will band once in every 10-day period during the breeding season.”
Mist nets are devices used to capture birds for banding with minimal risk of harm. Made of very fine nylon or polyester filament virtually invisible to birds, they look like volleyball nets suspended between two trees or poles.
“A key concept behind MAPS is that if you know the age mix of a given population of birds in a well-defined area by repeatedly banding and recapturing them, you can tell how well the various species are doing in that area,” said Bowman.
Since birds have a tremendous ability to disperse, he said, their young might have to find their own new habitat to some extent. In a good habitat, they might be very successful raising their own young. But if the habitat is not good, the birds don’t fully understand and may not find their way to a better one, indicated by declining survival rates of their young.
MAPS can guide such assessments and help wildlife managers plan interventions if desired.
“Even from the little bit of MAPS we did here, we could clearly say that gray catbirds are very successful in Kent Park… just because we catch buckets of babies, huge numbers of babies,” said Bowman.
Hypothetically, say indigo buntings are not doing well in the habitat and Kent Park would like to increase their numbers. Information from MAPS would help determine a strategy. Bowman summarized, “They could say, well, we’d really like to have more indigo buntings, in which case they’d probably want to clear out some undergrowth and continue on with that study, because gray catbirds like a lot of undergrowth and indigo buntings less.”
The MAPS project Bowman and Bradley operate at Kent Park depends upon the efforts of volunteers who are knowledgeable and skilled at handling and extracting birds from mist nets, transporting them safely to a station set up for measurement, and releasing them back to the wild.

Grandpa and granddaughter
Among the most dedicated and experienced volunteers are Arlen Breiholz, of Cedar Rapids, and his granddaughter, Kyla Yuza, a Kirkwood Community College student transferring to Iowa State University (ISU) next fall.
Breiholz, a member of the Iowa Ornithologists Union, runs an online bird report allowing birders to submit and share details about their sightings.
Having lived with her grandparents the first 10 years of her life, Yuza inherited the birding gene from her grandpa. Yuza said helping with banding at Kent Park during the last year cemented her decision to study animal ecology with a focus on wildlife at ISU.
“Last summer we caught a cedar wax wing, and it was the prettiest bird,” she recalled. “I remember being just so happy about that.”
“He was the star of the day,” added Breiholz. “Everyone wanted to get their picture taken with the wax wing!”
Yuza first encountered cedar wax wings in middle school.
“We had a berry tree outside the window of the library, and every spring, tons of cedar wax wings would flock to it, like 50 to 100 of them,” she said. “They like to eat the berries and they get intoxicated from them, just a little bit. So they’re all kind of stumbling around eating berries, and I remember just staring at them for like an hour, not doing what I was supposed to be doing.”
Yuza confessed she sometimes shows off her extensive knowledge of birds to friends.
“It’s my go-to if there’s nothing to talk about and I’m hanging out with someone,” she said. “I’ll just start talking about birds because it’s interesting to me, and surprisingly, no one knows much about them. They just know that they fly and that they’re everywhere.”
What birding wisdom does she share with her friends? A dislike of house sparrows and European starlings, for starters: “They’re invasive and everywhere in town, but a lot of people don’t know that they’re invasive, so I just try to spread the word about that.
“I also monitor bluebird boxes at Squaw Creek Park so I tell my friends about my adventures doing that... and tell them really cool things about some species, like bluebirds have really nice, clean-looking nests and blue eggs. I sometimes tell them about some birds that we hatch here.”
For Yuza, birding and wildlife conservation in general may well turn out to be more than an avocation.
“I hope to continue to do this sort of thing,” she mused. “Educate the public on what we need to conserve. A lot of people are very oblivious to what’s around them.”