As Joey mentioned, the banding regime here is quite different from how we do it in the US. Instead of banding every morning for a few hours for the whole season to cover many smaller sites, here in Bohemia we have just 4 big field sites and spend one crazy week trying to catch all the birds we can - repeated once or twice more later in the summer.
The team consists of Joey and myself, Tomáš (the head of the lab here) and his students Olda, Martina, Romana, Adella, Lucie, Lucie (yes there’s 2 of them), and Natalia...and occasionally a friend from the university who comes along for the fun. Most of the days we started slightly before dawn, like at home, but would then keep banding until late afternoon. This made for some long days as we processed birds nonstop for upwards of ten hours. After the first day, I learned the importance of packing lots of snacks. I can also tell you that it is entirely possible to eat a sandwich while holding a barn swallow.
We quickly figured out an efficient system for getting the birds in and out as soon as possible - which is no small task when you catch over 20 birds at once. Each bird is given a number as it is caught - sort of like when you go down to renew your drivers license and you have to take your little slip from the number machine, only they don’t shove you in a cloth bag and hang you on a coat rack while you wait for your number to be called. Though, it might be more exciting if they did. The birds are then sorted into two piles, males (samec) and females (samička) and ladies get to go first - because we all know who is doing the real work of laying and keeping those eggs warm.
The areas where we processed the birds was also quite different from what we are used to. Joey and I usually lay everything out on a tarp a short distance from the barn and feel pretty classy when we remember to bring our little camp chairs. Here in the Czech Republic we band indoors, in rooms equipped with tables and chairs, lights, and tea kettles. In one location, the fish farm, we use the large office space (aka Mr. Pulec’s man-room to get away from his wife), which even includes calendars of nude women posing with carp (no, this is not a joke). In another location, the guest house, we actually band in the pub - where we can order beer (at 9am) as we work and provide some mild entertainment for visiting guests, who do not think it is strange at all to be eating their breakfast and watching bird blood samples be taken a few tables away.
The birds go through an elaborate assembly line once their number is finally called: they have just about everything measured, sampled, and collect that seems imaginable. They’re banded (or ringed as they say here in Europe), their parasites are counted, their blood is taken, blood smears are made, their various appendages, feathers, and head size (which translates to brain size) are measured, they are photographed and measured with a spectrometer, and finally they are individually marked with unique color combination. The lucky males also get to have their sperm collected; through a little process called “cloacal massage” (I’m sure Joey’s sister is happy that her description of Joey’s job as ‘molesting birds’ is really true now). This has lead to numerous dirty jokes, as you can imagine, but has allowed Joey and I to see lots of little swimming barn swallow sperm with the help of a microscope, possibly making us more excited then it should have. One interesting fact - in some individuals about 20% of the sperm is just the tail section that is swimming furiously, despite the fact that it is fundamentally useless without a head- as Tomáš said, “they seem to be missing their hats.”
Joey and I have also been fully converted to the color bands that we are using here to mark the birds so we can observe which nest they go to. While you can spend lots of money for fancy official ornithology color bands - the bands we’re using here are actually little beads from those kits you buy for kids to make patterns and then melt them solid with an iron (don’t lie, you’ve totally made a flower or a peace sign at some point in your life). Genius! They are much easier to see in the dim light of the barns too. It seems that our strangely colored field pants will soon be bazaar relics of the past.
In just 5 days, we have managed to catch and process about 235 adult barn swallows - and I have counted parasites on every single one of them. I am really, really good at counting by tens now. We have also caught a couple other barnyard birds in our nets here including: house sparrows (who Joey and I are learning not to hate since they are native here) and house martins, who are a close relative of swallows but come in a striking black and white. We were also happy to discover that the house martins have adorable hairy (well, feathery really) feet that can make you smile - even after counting parasites for ten hours straight.
Banding Bonanza Enjoy these pictures from our crazy week!