Jason Kitting (pronouns: he/him) is a bird banding expert who studies migratory birds and how they interact with the environment. Bird banding is a scientific practice of catching and releasing birds to understand their ages, movements and life histories – one of many that is governed by hands-on experience and mentorship rather than formal education and qualifications. For this reason, it is a wonderful way for people to gain practical experience in wildlife handling and monitoring without the barrier of a tertiary degree. Jason shares his story of how he became fascinated by birds, fell into bird banding and bird research for work and years later, is finishing up his first undergraduate degree. He discusses what bird banding involves and his advice for aspiring bird lovers looking to work with wildlife.
Jason started his journey with birds as a teenager, when he volunteered at a wildlife rescue center that had raptors such as owls. He was amazed by these birds and wanted to learn more about them. When he heard about scientific research on birds as he got older, Jason decided to pursue that path. He began doing more and more fieldwork, especially bird banding and has travelled all over the Americas chasing bird banding and research opportunities in different places. And in terms of school, Jason says –
“I’ve gone a non-traditional route with school. I went out and started doing fieldwork and now I’m back finishing my undergraduate degree.”
For this reason, activities like bird banding are wonderful ways for people to gain practical experience in wildlife research without the barrier of a tertiary degree.
Bird banding is a method of studying birds by catching them with special mist nets, putting metal bands on their legs, and recording various data about them. The bands have unique numbers that can be traced back to where and when the birds were banded and are designed to track individual birds within a population. In this way, researchers can learn about the movements, habitats, health, and population dynamics of different bird species.
Jason works with migratory birds, which are mostly birds of the tropics that come to North America during the summer to breed and then go back to the tropics. His research is important for monitoring changes in ecosystems and conditions using birds as an indicator. Jason measures the habitat quality and requirements that affect the birds as they pass through by catching and releasing the birds themselves – and looking for any changes in the trends over time.
Jason specializes in the desert birds of New Mexico and even within a few years of the project, there have already been some interesting results – the assemblages of birds are shifting, likely due to shifts in the conditions. Jason explains:
“Some species that were primarily in the southern part of the state or down in Mexico are marching forward. And species that 10 years ago we never saw are now dominant species in our area.”
For example, Jason explained the White-winged Dove was dominant in Albuquerque now but didn’t exist in the state 30 years ago.
HOW TO START BIRD BANDING
Jason says that if you want to work with birds, you should be passionate, curious, and willing to learn. While Jason started down the avenue of wildlife rehabilitation, he says that there are many ways to get involved –
“Reach out to groups on social media, look for jobs online and there are lots of volunteer opportunities. And depending on the group, most are happy for people without experience or education to help.”
“Whoever is willing to help can – so we have people who are in pharmacy, vet, biology, all kinds of professions showing up and helping us out – so you can get involved in a lot of ways.”
And if you want to turn a passion for bird banding and bird research into a paid career, Jason is a shining example that this is possible – with flexibility, experience and a network! Jason explains some good places to start –
“There are lots of bird observatories around the US and Canada that require people to manage the banding stations and a lot of time that they are paid full time employees who are basically exclusively banders. There are other opportunities for contract work on bird research projects as well.”
BRIDGING THE GAPS ON SHORT-TERM CONTRACTS
Like so much field work, a lot of bird research work is seasonal and funded from short-term sources so bridging those gaps between contracts is an important skill to master to sustain yourself within this field. Jason says the more you can build your experience and network the better, although there will always be inevitable lulls, especially early on in your career.
“When you get good, it gets easier to find work but there’s always a slow season – spring and fall are very busy, summer gets busy but winter is usually the slow season for a lot of bird banding jobs so plan for it.”
And although it can be challenging to land back-to-back contracts in bird banding or other niche skills – Jason says you can always take other contracts in between – doing nest monitoring like he has done or working with other species.
“I’ve been lucky enough to just be able to stick with just birds, but I couldn’t always just do banding specifically, or migration research because that doesn’t happen year-round.”
Overall, Jason advocates for reaching out for opportunities and expand your network. He explains –
“One of the big things which I’ve definitely struggled with before is just don’t be afraid to reach out to groups – ask if there’s opportunities available or volunteer capacity. Network. Make a connection. The more I go through life the more I realize how important networking really is.”
“I think the biggest thing is don’t be afraid to reach out and ask. The worst thing they can say is no, and then you’re in exactly the same boat as you started in.”
“And just ask for help, always be open to learning – there’s always something to learn no matter how much of an expert you are.”
KEEP IN TOUCH
KEEP IN TOUCH
Want to hear more from Jason? Tune into the podcast or follow his adventures and bird banding education on Instagram @ birdbanderdude_nm.
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