David Aborn knew the bird in his hand was an unusual sight in East Tennessee, but it was even more unique than he thought.
The bright-green female was a Painted Bunting, a species common in West Tennessee but rarely found in the eastern part of the state.
As part of a project he started in 2003, Aborn, a professor in the Department of Biology, Geology and Environmental Science at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, took some measurements such as weight, wing condition, amount of fat deposits and the bird’s overall health, placed a numbered band on its leg and set it free. Like always, he also submitted the bird’s information to the U.S. Geological Survey Bird Banding Lab. That’s when he learned the special nature of his find.
“It turns out that was actually the first Painted Bunting that’s ever been banded in Tennessee,” he said. “That was a big surprise to me.”
The Painted Bunting is just one of 99 species that Aborn has banded in his Urban Stopover project at Greenway Farms in Hixson. In early May, he hit a milestone: The banding of his 6,000th bird, in this case a veery, a cinnamon-colored member of the thrush family.
Chattanooga is “a pretty birdy area,” especially during migration season, he said.
For the project, Aborn has set up what are called mist nets—OK’d by the National Audubon Society—to capture the birds. The goal is to study birds’ migration patterns and the effects of urbanization on the different species.
He and hundreds of others around the U.S. capture birds in “urban stopovers,” places where birds stop for a time during their migration to rest, eat and build energy for the next part of their journey.
“I always like to tell people that birds don’t just say, ‘Beam me up, Scotty’, and they’re magically transported from one place to another,” Aborn said. “Migration is a series of flights. So they’ll fly for a little bit, then they put down to rest refuel, escape bad weather, etc.”
While some may think birds wouldn’t like cities with their buildings and pavement and pollution and people, that’s not the case, Aborn said.
“Birds use urban parks like crazy. Central Park in New York City is a phenomenal birding location. You’ve just got this massive urban area then you’ve got this big patch of green.”
By taking measurements to determine a bird’s health, Aborn can tell whether the various species are doing well in the Chattanooga area.
“From what I can see out at Greenway Farms, they’re able to maintain themselves, so it’s not a bad place, but it’s not a great place, either,” he said.
The measurements Aborn takes are entered into the Banding Bird Lab under the unique number on the band itself.
“It’s like giving a bird a name tag,” he said. “You can go to the website and can enter the band number, and it will let you know all the information—where it was banded, when, by who, etc.”
The data not only shows migration patterns and important urban stopovers for birds, it can indicate larger trends, he said.
“Birds are very sensitive to changes in the environment. So if we’re seeing lots of bird mortality or declines in bird populations, that’s telling us something.”
It’s definitely telling something now, he said.
“We’re seeing things like birds breeding earlier and changes in migration patterns as a result of climate change. So birds are definitely important for the ecosystem and therefore ourselves.”
Top 10 most-banded species at Greenway Farms
- Northern Cardinal — 517
- White-throated Sparrow — 454
- Magnolia Warbler — 450
- Hooded Warbler — 325
- Brown Thrasher — 271
- Carolina Wren — 246
- Gray Catbird — 244
- Swainson’s Thrush — 227
- Wood Thrush — 222
- Ovenbird — 201