Bob Mulvihill (left) and Bob Leberman on a research expedition in Costa
Rica, 1999. Many of the species banded
at Powdermill migrate to Central America.
Bird-banding at Powdermill Nature Reserve reaches a
By R. Jay Gangewere
After banding half a
million birds in 40 years, the avian research program at Powdermill Nature
Reserve has a secure reputation as one of the nation's most durable and
productive bird-banding operations.
The 2,200-acre field station south of Ligonier, next to Forbes State
Forest, has one of the most extensive
databases of its kind for
wild bird populations.
At Powdermill, birds in
flight are captured in finely threaded mist nets spread along the birds'
flight paths among areas of low shrubs and trees. Soon disentangled from the fine netting by the bird-banders
who regularly walk the paths, the birds are each collected in a paper bag.
Every bird is taken to a small laboratory building nearby where it is
recorded in a computer database by species, weight, age, sex, wing length,
and fat deposits. After a tiny
aluminum bracelet with a code number and the telephone number of the U.S
Fish and Wildlife Commission is painlessly attached to its leg, the bird is
quickly released back into the wild through a small door in the wall of the
is quite literally a national treasure."
Dr. C. J. Ralph,
U.S. Forest Service Research Ecologist
Unusual among North America's small number of
high-volume landbird banding stations, Powdermill is inland, away from
classical migratory "flyways" along lake shores, coasts, and major
river valleys. Also unusual, it
operates year-round, not just during spring or fall migration seasons, with
the long-term scientific staff of Robert Leberman and Robert Mulvihill, and
a small corps of dedicated seasonal volunteers and interns catching and
banding birds some 250 days each year. Migratory
birds banded at Powdermill have been discovered as far away as Cuba, Costa
Rica, and Columbia.
Powdermill's extensive databases provide vital
information on the biology of a wide assortment of the many breeding,
wintering, permanent resident, and migratory birds throughout western
Pennsylvania. Nearly 200 species
are represented in the banding data base, which feeds into global studies about bird migration
patterns, and the effects of global warming.
In 1961 field ornithologist
Robert Leberman started the songbird migration studies under the late
director of Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Graham Netting, who
pioneered in studying the differential timing of migration by age and sex
classes within species. Leberman continues as the program's principal
bander, and is proud of the contributions that Powdermill banding have made
to the science of ornithology. But he believes the public aspects of the
program have been just as important.
Thousands of people of all ages have visited this banding program to
learn about ornithology, and the museum has gained immeasurable good will
as a result.
Among the dozens of young
people who have served as interns and eventually chose careers in ecology
and natural science is Robert Mulvihill, who became fascinated at the age
of 12 by seeing Leberman band birds, and went on to become a field
ornithologist himself. Mulvihill
began banding as a regular volunteer in 1978, while an undergraduate at the
University of Pittsburgh, and in 1983 became a full-time bander. Later he continued with environmental
studies in the graduate program at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He
thus represents that group of young people, local as well as from distant
places, whose academic choices and careers were strongly influenced by
Powdermill's bird-banding program in, he says, "Pittsburgh's own
The collective effort of Carnegie ornithologists for more than a
century has produced a wealth of data on local avian biodiversity and
population dynamics. There have
been scores of scientific
publications, and several popular works widely considered to be among the
very best of their kind. An
undisputed classic is W.E. Clyde Todd's monumental Birds of Western Pennsylvania, published in 1940 but based on
fieldwork begun by the museum's first curator of birds in 1893.
Others were produced by curator emeritus Dr. Kenneth C. Parkes-- Field List of the Birds of the
Pittsburgh Region (1956); and Robert C. Leberman-- Birds of the Ligonier Valley (1976), and The Birds of Western Pennsylvania and Adjacent Regions (1988). This last is a full revision and updating of Dr. Parkes' earlier field
list. Another is The Atlas of Breeding Birds in
Pennsylvania (1992), edited by Daniel Brauning, and containing over 40 species accounts
authored by Robert C. Leberman and Robert S. Mulvihill.
Visit the bird-banding
website at http://www.carnegiemuseums.org/cmnh/powdermill/avianresearch.htm