Friday, January 10, 2014

Banding results part 1: the oldest bird

Bird banding in PNG part 1
The oldest bird

I did not spend all my time at Crater searching for pekpek.  For the sake of advancing science I started a bird banding (or what the Brits and Aussies call "ringing") program.  There was no permanent banding station anywhere in New Guinea, no long-term monitoring of any population of marked animals of any species.  Science screamed for a banding program.  Yeah, that's the reason.

Actually I started banding because it is fun.  You never knew what you would catch.  Each month I'd run a line of nets along a different trail.  I'd walk back and forth along the trail, banding and releasing as I went, never knowing what might be in the next net.  A few times I've been surprised with snakes or lizards.  Once a fish in the net 5 feet above the ground and hundreds of yards from the nearest water.  Once we caught a bird with a small frog in its beak that turned out to be an undescribed species (the frog, not the beak).

I've written an essay about banding published in "Tale Feathers" edited by Jackie Howard (  It is available on for Kindle also.

After my first long residence at the station, I published a technical paper about the birds of Crater (co-authored with Debra Wright in 1996) in Emu (available under the Academic Research tab on this website).

That first paper told me we needed a lot more data before we could understand what was happening at Crater-- when birds breed, when they molt, etc.  So I engaged the help of many volunteers up until 2006 to band more birds, especially from Doug Schaeffer and Stephen Oppel, who each spent about a year at the station.  With the help of these people, we racked up thousands of captures.

I've begun compiling and analyzing those data for another publication.  I thought it would be fun to share some interesting tidbits here as I slog through the data in my spare time.

Oldest Bird

The longest interval between first capture and a recapture was 4402 days, or just over 12 years.  The bird was banded the first month we were banding (May 1992) and just six months from the end of the study period in June 2006.  What was it?  drum roll....

A Mountain Drongo, Chaetorhynchus papuensis.  Never heard of it?  Most people haven't.  It is an all black bird, weighing less than two ounces (40 grams), that lives in the forest understory of foothills to mid-montane forests of New Guinea (and no where else).  It catches insects and has a nice strong hooked bill to hold them (or the bander's fingers) and prominent hairs (rictal bristles) around the mouth.  Its Latin name Chaeto- for hairs, rhynchus- for bill, translates to something like the Papuan HairBill.  I'd go for a name like that (reminiscent of HairBall), but ornithologists have called it a Drongo, thinking it is allied with a group of mostly southeast Asian birds that are also black insect eaters.

Mountain Drongo, Chaetorhynchus papuensis, ready to be banded at the Crater Mountain Field Station..
Modern DNA analyses are suggesting Chaetorhynchus is not really related to Drongos.  The similarities in plumage and bill shape are likely just matters of convergence due to similar habits.  If ornithologists remove it from the Drongo Family, they'll have to come up with a new English name for it.  I'll lobby in favor of Papuan Hair-Bill, or New Guinea Hairy-billed Finger-Biter. 

Wherever it belongs in the evolutionary tree, I think it neat that a little bird like this lives so long.  If we had been able to keep the program going, we might have learned just how long they can live.  I'm guessing more than 20 years is possible.

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