Illinois hunting and fishing

Vern Kleen examines a robin that was captured for banding at the Adams Wildlife Sanctuary. Kleen is closing in on his 100,000th bird banded this weekend. Photo by Chris Young.

Ornithologist closes in on 100,000 birds banded

June 07, 2012 at 10:57 PM

Vern Kleen has followed in the footsteps of famous naturalists John James Audubon and Aldo Leopold for more than 50 years. But sometime this weekend, by one way of measuring, he’ll surpass both scientists: Kleen will band his 100,000th bird.

Kleen, who lives in Springfield, retired a decade ago from a career as an ornithologist with the old Illinois Department of Conservation. But he hasn’t slowed down when it comes to attaching tiny metal bands to the legs of birds. If anything, his pace has gotten faster.

Leg bands are important to people who study birds, but Kleen perhaps is best known for giving members of the public a better look at – and better understanding of –Illinois bird life.

Kleen’s regular banding haunts include the Adams Wildlife Sanctuary, 2315 Clear Lake Ave., and any number of hummingbird festivals throughout the state.

Tom Clay, executive director of the Illinois Audubon Society said Kleen (a member of the society’s board of directors) has provided chances for Illinois Audubon staff, volunteers and visitors to the Adams Wildlife Sanctuary to view migrating birds up close.

“How often do you get to see a magnolia warbler in the hand?” Clay asked.

Kleen has captured, identified, measured and banded birds that otherwise might have passed unnoticed.

“(The bird banding project) has revealed to us the remarkable number of species using this urban sanctuary,” Clay said.

Kleen documented so many species that Illinois Audubon qualified for a grant to restore wildlife habitat at the sanctuary.

Waterfowl hunters

Banding of birds traces its roots back to Audubon, the famous bird artist, who tied silver strands of thread to the legs of Eastern phoebes to see if the same birds returned to his home to nest each year.

Seventy years ago, naturalist Leopold wrote a poetic essay about a chickadee he banded and then captured for five consecutive years on his farm in Wisconsin.

Waterfowl hunters probably are the group of people most familiar with banding, because bands returned by hunters give researchers some idea of where ducks and geese go during migration and what routes they use to get there.

It can also give them some idea of how long birds live.

Pekin goose hunter Brett Allen, then 16 years old, bagged a Canada goose in December 2010 that was more than 20 years old. Allen learned the bird was older than he was when he called in the band number.

Bands also help scientists keep track of endangered species, like whooping cranes.

Last fall, when whooping cranes stopped along the Illinois River north of Peoria, color-coded leg bands helped observers identify individual birds from a distance and track their progress as they migrated south.

Going over his records, Kleen realized last year he was closing in on 100,000 birds. He now expects to hit the 100,000 mark this weekend at a hummingbird/nature festival in New Athens, sponsored by the Kaskaskia Audubon Society.

Occasionally, Kleen will capture a hummingbird he banded the year before, proving the bird made the arduous migration journey to Mexico and returned to the same place to nest.

Started at 18

“Back in 1960, when I had just turned 18, I obtained a Federal Bird Banding Permit and was a serious bander in those early years, banding about 3,000 birds per year,” Kleen said. “Then I had to suspend banding because the Army wanted two years of my life in the mid-‘60s.”

Following his time in the service, Kleen spent two years working as a biologist for the Smithsonian Institution in the north Pacific Islands.

“Serious banding resumed in fall of 1969 and continued through about 1980, then was more or less piecemeal until 2000, when it once again turned serious,” he said. “On adding up all the banding records from 1960 through 2011, it was noted that the total number of birds banded on my permit was only 1,252 short of 100,000.”

Kleen originally figured he would hit the 100,000 mark earlier this spring, during migration banding operations at the Adams Wildlife Sanctuary.

But migration was slow, thanks in part to an early spring that sent most birds north instead of stopping in central Illinois.

When Kleen closed down the Margery Adams Bird Banding Station May 24, he was still 202 short.

“Now the summer hummingbird operations have begun, with 30 hummingbirds banded on Thursday and 100 more on Saturday,” he said. “The shortfall is now just 72 birds, so the 100,000th bird will in all probability be a hummingbird banded (Friday or Saturday).”

Chris Young can be reached at 788-1528.

Illinois Audubon Society hummingbird festivals

*Saturday, 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., Hanft Park, New Athens

*June 23, 9 a.m. to noon, Happy Haven, Oakland

*June 30, 9 a.m. to noon, Hefley Home, Hillsboro

*July 7, 9 a.m. to noon, Siloam Springs State Park, Quincy

*July 19, 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., Engel Farm, Jacksonville

*July 28, 9 a.m. to noon, Lewis & Clark State Historic Site, Alton

*July 29, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., Okaw Valley Orchards, Sullivan

*Aug. 2, 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., Sullivan’s Farm, Rushville

*Aug. 4, 9 a.m. to noon, New Salem State Historic Site, Petersburg

*Aug. 4, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Trail of Tears State Forest, Jonesboro

*Aug. 18, 9 a.m. to noon, Camp Sagawau Environmentla Center, Lemont

*Aug. 25, 9 a.m. to noon, Forest Park Nature Center, Peoria Heights

*Sept. 1, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Sugar Grove Nature Center, Funks Grove