COLLEGE TOWNSHIP — Alex Lamoreaux took a nip for science.
Lamoreaux, a Penn State student, gingerly extracted a writhing bundle of feathers from a net during a banding session. The feisty cardinal wasnt happy. She twisted her head and sank her beak into Lamoreauxs bare hand as he winced.
They just clamp down hard, he said. It hurts.
In the woods of Big Hollow, not far from Penn State, Lamoreaux and other volunteers spent a recent morning withstanding bites while catching birds, measuring and weighing them, and attaching aluminum bands to their legs.
Eschewing gloves, which hinder handling the delicate birds, they ignored pain to help ornithologists and ecologists.
The banding effort, part of the Avian Education Program of the Arboretum at Penn State, supplies information for a national bird database used for studying migration routes, population dynamics, feeding and nesting patterns and habitat changes. Data are stored at the U.S. Geological Surveys Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Patuxent, Md.
Twice a week this fall, volunteers have set up long mist nets at the arboretums botanic gardens or near Penn States Air Quality Learning and Demonstration Center. Feeding birds cant see the nets fine mesh.
Once released from the nets, each bird receives a band stamped with a unique string of digits.
Its like getting a kind of Social Security number, said Nick Kerlin, the programs bander-in-charge.
When banded birds are caught elsewhere, researchers check the number in the federal database. The distances traveled can be impressive.
In 18 months, two birds Kerlin banded at his College Heights home survived marathon journeys. One pine siskin, a northern bird with a taste for pine cones, wound up outside Seattle. Another made its way to southern British Columbia.
Local banding started in the fall of 2010 also provides snapshots of changing native and migratory bird populations, Kerlin said. During 12 days of spring banding this year, his volunteers banded 215 birds representing 30 species.
They also recaptured 36 of 11 species previously banded by the program. So far, the program hasnt captured any banded birds from elsewhere.
During a typical four-hour morning banding session, the Penn State crew sets up 10 nets. Good weather is critical. Birds spot and avoid nets rippling in the wind. Any rain sends students and community volunteers scrambling to take down nets because trapped birds, if upside down, can get soaked under their feathers and die from hypothermia.
Banders check nets every 30 minutes, carefully removing birds before placing them in small cloth bags for carrying to the banding station. Kerlin said birds rarely are hurt, and in his 38 years of banding, none has died. If a bird looks harmed at all, its released immediately.
The biggest thing we try to impress upon the volunteers is the welfare of the birds, Kerlin said.
Besides bandings scientific value, Kerlin said, it provides wildlife and fisheries science students with valuable hands-on training.
It gives them a chance to do some field studies that they wouldnt normally have experience with, Kerlin said.
Lamoreaux, a senior wildlife and fisheries major, appreciates the opportunity. He said hell likely interview for jobs that require handling birds. Moreover, banding has deepened his knowledge of individual species.
Just seeing the birds up close teaches you how to identify them so much better, he said.
For bird lovers, said Ian Gardner, a Penn State graduate student in environmental studies, banding can be a treat. On bird walks, shy species often are heard only.
A lot of times you cant see them, Gardner said. When they get caught in the nets, you see them.
One special catch thrilled him and the rest of the Penn State crew.
After a rose-breasted grosbeak and a downy woodpecker were banded, news came of a rare black-billed cuckoo in one of the nets.
Its very exciting, said Josh Lefever, a Penn State senior. Its a kind most people have never seen.
Minutes later, the cuckoo arrived in its bag, squawking in protest.
Awesome, Lamoreaux said.
The celebrity cuckoo, the first ever for the program, received the same treatment as such common visitors as the gray catbird and purple finch.
Lamoreaux measured its wing about 5 1/4 inches then did the same for its tail.
Next came weighing. He placed the now-meek cuckoo head-first into a can resting on a small digital scale. To restrain smaller birds, the banders use prescription drug canisters.
Turning the bird over, Lamoreaux blew on its chest feathers. Pink flesh showed instead of yellowish fat. That told him the migrating bird had arrived as early as that morning, and had just begun to feed.
A yellow eye ring a juveniles marking indicated the bird had hatched this year.
After its banding and several photos, the cuckoo finished its service. Lefever released a light but firm finger grip on its legs, and it departed just as an angry catbird did earlier, flying off with new jewelry and nary a look back.
None the worse for the wear, Kerlin said.
Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620. Follow him on Twitter @CRosenblumNews