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Vern Kleen at the bird banding station
By Chris Young | SJ-R
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Earning your wings
By Chris Young

If you want Vern Kleen to take you under his wing, be prepared to earn yours.

Kleen is a retired ornithologist and board member of the Illinois Audubon Society living in Springfield.

He's been banding birds at the Adams Wildlife Sanctuary during migration on a volunteer basis for more than a year. He also bands hummingbirds each summer numbering into the thousands at popular hummingbird festivals statewide.

This spring, from March through May, Kleen was at the sanctuary nearly every morning, setting up special nets to capture migrating birds so he could record their species and affix a tiny band to their legs.

It's tougher than it looks.

Experts who are permitted by the U.S. Department of the Interior to capture and band protected birds must demonstrate that their knowledge of birds and their identification is beyond reproach.

Accuracy is important, and the person banding birds must be certain, because the results of a scientific study could be worthless if information gathered on a particular bird's movements is gleaned from birds that are misidentified.

So there's an unwritten rule to be followed when identifying birds with Kleen.

Don't guess.

Even if you get it right by chance, Kleen will make you prove it.

"Why is it a Swainson's thrush and not a gray-cheeked thrush, hermit thrush, wood thrush or veery?" he asks.

"Um, because of the eye ring?" you answer in an unconvincing manner.

"Yes, it's a Swainson's," he says, pointing to a buff-colored ring that frames the eye.

"You can tell it from a gray-cheeked because the gray-cheeked has an eye ring that's not very noticeable," he says.

Holding a bird in the hand is completely different than identifying one on the wing.

Bird watchers learn clues to help them tell birds apart, but those don't always help when the context changes.

They are familiar with the behaviors.

Many experienced birders know the individual birds songs so well they hardly have to look up. They just know by the song or call what kind of birds are out there.

But none of the usual clues are any help at all when Kleen pulls a bird out of a tiny mesh bag and asks, "What's this?"

It's just a bird. And it could be one of more than 300 species to be seen at one time or another in the Prairie State.

And this one's just brown. Not many markings. And it's tiny.

"It's an Empidonax flycatcher. Does that help?" Kleen asks with a smile.

Empidonax is a genus of flycatcher and narrows the field to half dozen or so.

"A least flycatcher?"

"Good. Why?" he says.

"Size. It's very small."

"Good."

"Whew."

Bird banding traces its roots to famous bird artist John James Audubon, who tied silver threads to the legs of Eastern phoebes in the early 1800s to see if the same birds returned to nest each spring. The late conservationist Aldo Leopold banded chickadees at his Wisconsin farm to see how long they lived. The eldest chickadee made it through five Wisconsin winters.

The chances of a banded bird being recovered seem slight, but Kleen has recaptured hummingbirds in the same backyard where they were banded the previous summer. Those tiny birds migrated all the way to Mexico and survived the return trip to Illinois.

Beyond learning the nuts and bolts, students can learn about the artistic side of nature. Each bird is a work of art.

One privilege of participating in bird banding is the chance to see birds up close. It is amazing to see how the feathers overlap one another, and how those around the eye appear to embroidered by hand.

Kleen's regular cast of helpers and students is learning a lot.

We're not supposed to guess. But Kleen didn't say anything about sneaking off to look up a warbler once in awhile.

Just don't let the teacher know.

Story published Friday, July 2, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 4 )

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