A look inside a shrike biologist’s toolkit

By Hazel Wheeler

There are many tools that are useful to a shrike biologist during the fi eld season: a good pair of binoculars to spot birds in large tracts of open alvar or pastureland; a spotting scope to get a closer look at their legs to see any bands; and a saint-like level of patience while you watch a bird perching motionless, waiting for it to move, so you can see its bands or follow it to its nest, which you’re sure is around somewhere, if the bird would just move…

These are the tools that help you when you’re working on the observational side of the shrike recovery program. However, there’s a whole other kit that’s needed when you’re doing hands-on work with the birds, especially when getting conservation-bred shrikes ready for release, and these tools range from highly specialized to the surprisingly mundane.

Skill, precision, and a carefully stocked toolkit are necessities for shrike biologists in the field. Photo credit: VIncent Luk/Evermaven

 

On the ‘highly specialized’ side, there are the tools that are needed to attach the metal bands to the birds, such as the special banding pliers that close the band tightly without threat of pinching a bird’s leg. We also use a special gauge to measure a bird’s leg to see what size of band it should wear. You want a band that is big enough to move freely, but not so big that it could slip over the foot and cause an injury, and the leg gauge is an invaluable tool to find the proper size.

It takes nimble fingers to carefully handle the bird while taking body measurements. Photo credit: VIncent Luk/Evermaven

Whenever we handle a bird, however, we measure a lot more than just the width of the leg. We collect as much data as we can from each bird, often using a set of digital callipers to get accurate measures of the length and width of leg bones, and bill height, width, and depth. Data goes into a federal government database, where all Canadian banders submit records for the birds they handle, creating a vast repository of bird measurements over time. Darwin would be pleased.

And now we get to the mundane. Did you know, for example, that my banding kit includes a full rainbow of Sharpie markers? We put colour bands on the birds so we can ID them in coming years, but colouring our bird’s feathers with Sharpies off ers a much more visible, albeit temporary, way for our fi eld teams to tell birds apart when they are being held in large cages at our fi eld sites prior to release. Th ere can be up to 12 birds in a cage, so looking for “purple head” or “red breast” is much faster than looking for leg bands every time.

A repurposed toilet paper roll makes a great shrike scale. Photo credit: VIncent Luk/Evermaven

 

The most mundane tool that we use may also be one of the most important: a toilet paper tube. Staple one end shut, poke some air holes, et voila, you have a perfect little shrike holder! Putting a bird in a tube can help to calm it while you take your measurements and apply bands, and it also quite handily removes the threat of bites, which is something not to be taken lightly when handling shrikes.

Which brings us to the one last item that is of the utmost importance in any shrike banding kit: Bandaids. Lots and lots of Bandaids.

 

Hazel Wheeler

Hazel Wheeler

Lead Biologist – Eastern Loggerhead Shrike Recovery Program

Hazel manages all aspects of our shrike recovery program, from captive breeding and release, field surveys, and landowner relationships in Ontario, to building partnerships with shrike researchers in the US to work towards species recovery throughout North America. Hazel has been working with at-risk birds for over a decade, including a Master’s degree studying the habitat of the chimney swift.