Hooked on Birds: 90-Year-Old Mainer Bands Birds for Scientific Research

Aug 28, 2014

June Ficker untangles a cardinal from a net.
June Ficker untangles a cardinal from a net.
Credit Patty Wight / MPBN

WELLS, Maine - Much like the tourists who flock to the state's beaches, forests, and mountains, birds from all over the world inhabit the same special places. And 90-year-old June Ficker eagerly anticipates their arrival. For 25 years, she's been banding birds at the Wells Research Reserve and collecting data for national research projects.

For most of us, Christmas only comes once a year. But for June Ficker, every Wednesday, May through August, is like Christmas morning. That's the day she sets up mist nets at the Wells Research Reserve to see what feathered treasures arrive. "There are so many surprises, and I'm always just thrilled with the birds that we get," she says.

Mist nets resemble badminton nets, only taller, thinner, and harder for the unsuspecting birds to see as they fly into them. Ficker sets up some nets in small forest clearings, others are in meadows. These are the same locations she's used for the past 25 years.

Patty Wight: "Have you ever missed a day?"

June Ficker: "No. No. Oh, no. No, we've never missed a day."

She'll spend eight or nine hours here, checking the nets at least every half hour. "Oh! We've got a bird," she says. "OK - this is a cardinal, and she likes to bite, so I'm hoping to give her something to chew on."

Ficker uses a toothpick to untangle the cardinal from the net, while cooing to the bird. "Yeah. You're almost out little girl. Almost."

Ficker says she first got hooked on birds when she was about eight or nine. "My father handed me a salt shaker one morning, and he said, 'You take this out and sprinkle it on a bird's tail, and you can catch 'em.' Do you know how many months I spent in backyard, particularly chasing red headed woodpeckers? And I never could get the salt on the tail."
 

June Ficker helps an onlooker release a banded bluebird.
June Ficker helps an onlooker release a banded bluebird.
Credit Patty Wight / MPBN

Ficker's father later her bought her a canary, a beloved pet that she'd sometimes tuck into bed with her. As an adult, she got busy. She married, had children, worked, and stepped away from birding until she was 40. She read an article about the Maine Audubon Society, paid a visit and joined a birding trip to Monhegan Island. "And by the second or third night we were there, I dreamt that I was flying," she says.

Before long, Ficker trained to be a bird bander and has been doing it ever since.

"One of the biggest thrills is getting a bird that is a return bird. And it's a bird that's a neo-tropical migrant. This is one that goes to Central or South America," she says of one bird she captured. "And it's actually seven or eight years old. And I just get almost teary-eyed when I look at that little ball of fluff and think, 'You have traveled these thousands of miles, and you're still here.' "

But Ficker sees troubling signs. In the past three years, she's getting a lot fewer birds in her mist nets than she used to. "And now, unfortunately, I'm not even hearing them anymore - wood thrush, and the meadowlark."

But she finds satisfaction hooking other people onto birding. Every week, bird enthusiasts and curious onlookers come to watch Ficker band birds. One regular is now a professor of biology. Another works with hawks as a hobby. And her followers continue. Fifty-year-old Bill Tucker is from New York City.

"And this is actually my second summer to come and watch her do the bird banding," Tucker says. "And as I've gotten older, I feel that birds are a really easy entry into experiencing nature."

Ficker also has a loyal crew of helpers, like 84-year-old Joan Junker. She remembers when she first started recording data for Ficker about 25 years ago. "She said, 'Do you suppose we'll still be here when we're in our eighties?' " she says. "And look at us. We're still here!"
 

June Ficker sets up a mist net to catch birds for banding.
June Ficker sets up a mist net to catch birds for banding.
Credit Patty Wight / MPBN

Once Ficker frees the cardinal from the net, she determines the age and sex, and measures its wings and weight. She'll send this information to places like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help track bird behavior, reproduction, and distribution.

Ficker slips a numbered band on the cardinal's foot, and then carefully places it in a 10-year-old boy's hands to set it free. "And then raise that hand up," she instructs. "Open your fingers - open them all up. (Bird flies away) There you go. Very good!"

At 90 years old, and a quarter century in to banding birds at the Wells Research Reserve, Ficker admits she wonders if it's a good time to call it quits. "I think, oh why am I still doing this? I'm getting too old!" she says. "Then I have such a good time, I think well, I've got to keep going."

Even though this particular banding project is over for the season, she'll keep going this fall with another one. Instead of waking early she'll stay up late to band saw-whet owls - icing, she says, on that Christmas cake.