McGILL BIRD OBSERVATORY

INFORMATION FOR VOLUNTEERS

GUIDELINES FOR EXTRACTORS

In terms of safety, extraction of birds is the most critical step in banding, as it is at this stage that injuries have the greatest potential to occur.  Only those who have consistently demonstrated a very high level of competence at extraction are permitted to extract on their own.  Know your limitations - extraction is NOT for everyone.  You need to have considerable dexterity, patience, gentleness, and problem-solving ability to be a safe and effective extractor.  Remember, if you don't fit this description, there are plenty of other important ways to help too - please check the job descriptions page for details.

Two important points to keep in mind:
1) There is no place for pride when extracting.  If you aren't making progress, or can't figure out how to get a bird out in the first place, call for help as soon as you have doubts - you will learn through experience in time, but the safety of each bird is paramount.  Even experienced extractors sometimes are puzzled by a bird, and the challenge can often be solved more quickly by having another person look at it from a different perspective.  You MUST be willing to ask for assistance.

2) Approach each bird with confidence.  Like other animals, birds can sense fear.  If you are overly tentative, they will tend to struggle back, thinking that they can escape.  On the contrary, if you establish control and work confidently, you will tend to be met with much less resistance, and the process will be much quicker.  Similarly, it is vital that you remain patient, since any agitation on your part will be recognized and reacted to by the bird.

Every bird presents a unique challenge.  However, following the basic steps below will usually result in a safe and efficient extraction:

Prioritize extractions
1) Begin with birds that are vulnerable to getting their tongue stuck in the net (especially thrushes, catbirds, thrashers, and blackbirds).  See tongued birds under the tips section below for advice on extracting those that do have their tongues stuck.

2) Next, target any large birds that are likely to escape because they aren't actually caught in the mesh. 

3) Scan the nets for any birds lying close to each other, and extract at least one of each pair to ensure that they cannot peck each other while in the net (especially important for larger species, or aggressive birds of any size, such as chickadees).

4) Of the remaining birds, start with those that are likely to get more tangled as time goes on (e.g. chickadees, wrens, catbirds, sparrows), rather than those which usually lie calmly (e.g. kinglets, warblers, finches).

5) All other things being equal, begin at the bottom and work your way up through the panels.  This ensures that you won't accidentally bump into lower birds while working on higher ones, and if you have to lower the top panels to reach upper birds, won't risk having birds lower down grab on to extra layers of net.

Identify from which side of the net the bird entered
You MUST take birds out from the same side of the net they entered - determine this BEFORE you begin handling any bird.  If you are lucky and the bird is just lying in the net, the entire underparts should be visible to you from the "correct" side of the net - i.e. there is no mesh across the underparts and it appears to have a "bare bum".  Even if a bird is more tangled, you should always be able to get a clear view of the undertail coverts.

Assess situation visually before touching the bird
Determine how the bird is caught in the net, and what can be freed most easily.  In some cases it is helpful to use the net as a tool - GENTLY spreading it out around the bird may allow the bird to partly (or even entirely) shake itself loose.  Be prepared for the bird to be loose, and if so, cover it quickly and firmly, but gently with your hand (from which you can then easily slide around to secure it with a bander's grip).

Secure the bird
As soon as possible, secure the bird to minimize its ability to struggle against the net.  Usually it is best to hold the bird in a bander's grip as much as possible, but at times it will be necessary to use a photographer's grip - always be sure to hold the legs together securely with your thumb over the joint at all times to minimize any risk of leg injuries.  At times you may also find the "upside-down" bander's grip useful - same approach, but with your palm against the breast of the bird, rather than the back.

Working with the net
Always try to work WITH the net, rather than against it.  In practical terms, this means:

1) Remember that the net traps birds first by trapping them in pockets, and only secondarily by having birds actually get caught in the mesh.  This means that if you gently open the pocket the bird is in (from the side it entered), the separation of the two sides of the net is often enough to partly (or even entirely) free the bird.

2) Once you are holding a bird, pull SLIGHTLY away from the net.  It's easy to waste time in an extraction by "pushing" a bird back into the net.  Conversely, if you pull it too far away from the net, the tension on the net will be too great to allow you to get any of it off, and poses a threat of injury to the bird.

3) Always keep the bird in a natural position, i.e. never stretch or bend the wings into unnatural positions, and avoid putting unnecessary stress on the neck.

Begin with the least tangled part of the bird, and proceed sequentially (e.g. wing-head-wing)
Always remember that the bird flew forward into the net, with wings open, and then fell down into the net pocket.  You need to reverse the process.  Often the feet will be grabbing the net, but usually it is more efficient to free the wings and head first.  Don't get distracted by the feet!

A good way to begin is to open the pocket of the net a bit - this is analogous to having it stretched out as it was when the bird flew in.  In the simplest cases, the bird will then be lying there, face down (or up), with the wings partly open.  Such a bird can usually be easily "popped" out.  Reach in, and gently pin it in place, by putting your middle fingers on its back, and simultaneously sliding your thumb under its left wing and along its body.  Using your other hand, gently push the net away from you, focusing on having it slip off one of the wings (target whichever looks less tangled).  As soon as one wing is free, slide your index and middle fingers around the head in a bander's grip to secure the bird more firmly, and remove any loops of net from the head, then proceed to free the other wing.  If it is holding on to the net, pulling the bird away from the net will often cause it to release the net on its own.  If the net is not easily coming off the wings, it may be easier to assess the situation from the underside, where fewer feathers are likely to obstruct your view.

Of course, not all cases are so simple!  Some species (e.g. chickadees, blackbirds) are particularly likely to grab the net tightly with their feet.  If what they are grabbing is pinning both wings in place, you will need to free the net from the feet first.  However, even if only one wing is loose, you should be able to start with that, continue over the head, and off the other wing, and leave the feet for last.  If you do need to work the net off the feet first, be sure to hold the legs securely at the joint ("knee"), as birds' legs are delicate.  For even more complex situations, see the tips section below.

Assess the condition of the bird while you are working
The vast majority of birds are in good health, and unaffected by being captured in the nets.  However, extractors should always be alert for signs of undue stress or old injuries.  Such birds should either be released at the net without processing, or sent back to the bander as a priority (with a green peg on the bag string). 

Place into bag, using the bander's grip
Once the bird is free of the net, put it in a bag as soon as possible.  ALWAYS put it in using the bander's grip - birds should never be released (even inside a small bag) from a photographer's grip, as the risk of injury to the legs is too great.  When tying the loop around the top of the bag, hold your hand between the bird and the top of the bag, to ensure that no part of the bird can be caught in it.  Put the clothespin (identifying the net location) on the drawstring of the bag, never on the bag itself.  For birds that should be prioritized by the bander (e.g. juveniles or brooding females), identify them by adding a green peg in addition to the location peg.

Some other tips for special situations:

Toothpick
Always carry a wooden or (preferably) plastic toothpick (or similar tool) with you.  These can make it much quicker and easier to get strands of net off the feet and alula especially.  However, always be careful because of the sharp point, and for this reason use it around the head only if absolutely necessary.

Tongued birds
Some birds (most notably thrushes, catbirds, thrashers, and blackbirds) have a tongue with a long fork at the back.  On occasion the tongue may get stuck in the net if the bird attempts to bite the net while caught.  A bird that appears to be tongued is always a top priority.

To minimize strain on the tongue, it is important to immobilize the rest of the bird as completely as possible.  Since the birds most susceptible to tonguing are quite large and strong, it is advisable to have two people working together whenever possible.  One person should secure the body and legs, while the other uses a toothpick to gently lift the strand(s) of net off the back of the tongue.  Sometimes it may be necessary to carefully pry the net loose from the feet first, if they are pulling on strands that are producing tension around the head.  If progress is particularly slow, or the tongue is bleeding, it may be necessary to make a couple of small cuts to the net - but if so, be careful to ensure no loose pieces of net can be caught around the tongue and swallowed.

Pinned alula (small feather at the 'shoulder')
Some birds appear to have a wing very tightly pinned to the body.  This usually is a result of the net having slipped around the alula as the bird flew into the net, and tightened as it slid down around the shoulder.  Gently pulling the net sideways away from the bird may solve this problem, as may gradually opening the wing while simultaneously moving it a bit forward to release the tension.  Using a toothpick on the underside of the wing can also be helpful.

Thighed birds
Rather than just grabbing the net, some birds stick their legs entirely through it, so that the net rides up against the body along the thigh.  If only one leg is thighed, begin by freeing the wing on the opposite side, and continue by releasing the head and other wing.  You should then be able to simply slide the mesh down off the thigh and foot.  In rare cases where the bird is thighed on both sides, assess which leg will be easier to extricate, and begin with that, then continue working around the body (wing-head-wing-other leg). 

Tightly tangled birds
Most birds are (with experience) fairly easy to remove quickly, but those that are particularly tightly tangled require extra effort and care.  Usually this occurs when their momentum has caused them to spin around and land in the same pocket twice, especially on the bottom panel or at the end of the nets.  The key to solving these challenges is to take time at the beginning to carefully assess how the bird entered, and think through how to reverse the steps it followed.

Double-pocketed birds
Occasionally, birds will fall into a net pocket, and will get stuck not only in that panel, but also the one below - usually either by grabbing at it with their feet, or by sticking their head through.  If a bird looks particularly tangled, check for the possibility that it is double-pocketed before starting your extraction, and ALWAYS make sure to start with the secondary net first (i.e. whatever got tangled last has to be untangled first).

Large loose birds
Because the mesh is small, large birds do not get their head or wings stuck in the net.  As such, they are effectively loose in the pockets and can "run" back and forth in them.  As they do so, the net pocket may open up enough for them to fly back out.  If you see a large loose bird, run to the net, and secure it by holding the net pocket closed above it.  Usually if the bird is completely loose, it's a simple matter of reaching in with your other hand and grabbing it in a bander's grip.

Raptors
Because of their sharp beak and talons, raptors merit some extra caution.  However, they are actually quite safe to handle if you do so carefully.  Because of their size, they will not actually be tangled in the nets.  Usually, they will adopt a defensive posture, lying on their back, with talons ready to strike out.  The best approach is to start by securing the body of the raptor in place first, usually from below (i.e. with the net between your hand and the bird).  Then put your other hand on the upper breast of the bird and slide rapidly down the body, folding back the legs and pinning them to the body.  Stop just as your palms are over the base of the legs, and wrap your hand around the wings and tail - this is the "ice cream cone" grip.  The bird can then be safely removed from the net, likely with minimal net removal required with your free hand.

Biting birds (grosbeaks, cardinals, shrikes, grackles)
Some birds have a particularly strong and painful bite.  You should be prepared for the occasional bite, in the sense that you should be able to avoid making any physical reactions.  For these birds, more than any others, it is important that you approach with confidence and remain in control.  If you secure them in a good bander's grip, they will only rarely be able to nip at you. 

Jumpy birds
Some birds are very relaxed in the hand, while others tend to kick sporadically in an attempt to escape.  This is especially true of sparrows, robins, and blackbirds.   Their intent of course is to escape.  However, if they are still partially caught in the net at this point, allowing them to jerk free could result in undue stress on the wings, legs, or any other body part still stuck.  Note though, that instinctively grabbing at the bird is also NOT a good idea - there is too much risk of grabbing it too strongly.  The best approach is to maintain a firm and steady grasp throughout your extraction, and be prepared for some species to struggle a bit more than others.

Extraction is a difficult process to describe and a challenging skill to master.
If you have any other tips to recommend, please share them with us at "mbo AT migrationresearch.org".

2002- The Migration Research Foundation Inc.