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Great Lakes Piping Plovers

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Bird bands have been used for hundreds of years and have led to much of our understanding about the lives of birds. Each of our banded Great Lakes Piping Plovers receives a USGS aluminum band with a unique 9-digit number. This number is unique to that bird and will identify it throughout its life. We also use color-band patterns to allow recognition of individuals from a distance. This makes it possible for observers in different locations to piece together information about the lives of individual birds using only binoculars, spotting scopes and digital cameras.

It is estimated that 96-98% of the Great Lakes population is banded and therefore able to be  monitored throughout the years. If you’re in the Great Lakes area or somewhere on their wintering grounds, look for orange! Banded piping plovers from the Great Lakes population can be recognized by orange flags or orange bands with colored dots on them.

Banding Chicks

Great Lakes Piping Plover chicks are banded between five and sixteen days of age. Since shorebirds are precocial (Like chickens, Piping Plover chicks begin running around, feeding themselves within hours of hatching), these chicks have well developed legs, which makes it possible for us to band them with adult-sized bands at a young age. The bands we use are made of either plastic or aluminum, and they are very lightweight. 

Every sibling in a family gets the same color and arrangement of three or four bands (depending on the band color-pattern used). This is called a "brood-marker combination". There aren't enough possible combinations available to give every chick their own unique identifier from hatching, but by giving the chicks from the same family, or brood, the same combination we can study such things as parental success, fledging rates, and return success. Since the number of possible brood-marker color combinations is limited we reuse them in subsequent years. 

Slow walk method of chick capture

Since 2006 we have been using additional unique identifiers on chicks. We now put a colored dot (red, blue, green, or yellow) on the orange bands. Most combinations also include a colored band with a three-digit number on it. If an observer can report the color of a band and the three-digit number on it we can identify the individual and let them know that plover's history. The colored dots are very useful in counting and identifying chicks before they leave their hatch territories, but once they fledge and leave, the color-dots don't usually give a unique identification. With the advent of high-quality digital photography and digi-scoping observers are often able to read the color-band numbers and sometimes even the number on the aluminum USGS band. We are learning a great deal more about the first years of our plovers' lives through the use of these identifying numbers and with the invaluable help of observers throughout their range.

Alice Van Zoeren

Chick with yellow dot and 02_ on yellow band

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Chicks usually have colored dots on their orange band.  These are the colors used.

Banding Adults

Once a Great Lakes Piping Plover chick becomes an adult and a breeder in the Great Lakes, they are usually re-banded. At this time the bird gets their orange band replaced with an orange flag (we usually use flags without the numbers or letters you might see on plovers from other populations) and a new pattern of color bands that's unique to them. They retain the USGS metal band that was placed on their leg as a chick and receive two color bands below the joint on the side of the orange flag and one below the joint under the USGS band. Thus, each breeding adult gets marked in a way that distinguishes them from every other Piping Plover. Once an adult bird has their unique band colors they are not captured again. Only visual observations are necessary in subsequent years. This is to reduce disturbances and interactions with the birds as much as possible. They are handled only twice in their life. Because of these bands we can learn much about their entire life history through observations and reports of their unique band colors. The information we learn allows us to better understand how to protect the species.

The banding crew is made up of trained professionals who are approved by and follow all Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) guidelines, as well as holding both state and federal bird banding permits. The safety and best interest of the birds is always the first priority. While the act of banding may be briefly intrusive or stressful to the birds, the bands themselves do not largely impact them. Multiple studies have supported that the reproductive success, flight ability, overall well being of the bird, survival*, and more are not significantly influenced by wearing one or multiple bands.

*Roche, E. A., Arnold, T. W., Stucker, J. H. and Cuthbert, F. J. (2010), Colored plastic and metal leg bands do not affect survival of Piping Plover chicks. Journal of Field Ornithology, 81: 317–324.

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