When Charlie Corbeil sent this photo of a Red-cockaded Woodpecker (known to birders as RCW) with five leg bands, I started my research into what the various band colors mean. I have to tell you, this was complicated.
First, a little about the RCW. It is one of only two woodpecker species protected by the Endangered Species Act (the other being the ivory billed woodpecker). It lives in small family groups and socializes with other family groups during the day. RCWs are the only woodpeckers to excavate nest and roost sites in living trees, preferring old, living longleaf and loblolly pine trees. This is a very interesting bird, and I hope you'll follow the link at the end of the post to learn more about it.
Charlie suggested I speak with Samantha McGee, Environmental Specialist at St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park. She told me The bird in the photo taken by Charlie Corbeil was seen the evening of March 26, 2009 at the St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park. This particular female Red-Cockaded woodpecker was translocated to St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park from Goethe State Forest in 2007. ... We have been actively involved in the translocation program since 2001 and have received birds from Appalachicola National Forest, Ft. Stewart, GA, Ft.Benning, GA, Camp Blanding, FL and Goethe State Forest. She also provided me with some reference links that I'll include at the end of the post.
But I still was not sure of what each colored band represented, and my Internet research only served to confuse me more. So I got in touch with Andy Bankert, birder extraordinaire since the tender age of about 9 years old, now in college. Andy was wonderfully patient with my questions and explained that different birds necessitate different banding techniques and limitations. Regarding the interpretation of the colors, he said Usually there are more than 3 color bands to increase the number of combinations so the scientists can band hundreds of birds with a unique combination. In addition to the color bands, the aluminium US Geological Survey (USGS) band is placed on the bird. This band has a specific number to identify the bird if it is ever caught again or found dead, but usually the number is too small to be read in the field, so the color bands are used for resighting birds. The USGS band is placed on all banded birds, whether they are caught at a banding station (where that is the only band placed on the bird) or caught for a specific project (where color bands may be placed to identify specific birds by sight).
Bottom line - when birds are banded, detailed records are kept. You and I (or at least I) will never figure the whole thing out, but fortunately, people like Samantha know what they are doing! There's a link below that tells you how to report an encounter with a bird that has a metal Federal band.
I know it's hard to imagine that there is anything remotely funny about bird banding, but check back here in a few days for a good giggle.
My heartfelt thanks to Charlie for his photo and Samantha and Andy for their help.