Original story published by The Auburn Citizen
By Kelly Rocheleau
February 12, 2017
SAVANNAH — Aidan Van Lueken, 7, his bright green coat sticking out from the pale, snow-ridden background of the Montezuma Audubon Center in Savannah, studied the black-capped chickadee in his grasp.
After walking with it for a while, Van Lueken released the bird and it flew off. Though he frowned slightly at the small peck marks the chickadee left on his hand as a souvenir, he said he enjoyed the experience.
Van Lueken was among the crowd of around 20 people who attended the bird banding event with Dr. John Van Niel at the center Saturday.
The event was part of the center's Nature of Montezuma Lecture Series. Participants were out in the state-owned land — 198 acres in total — with Van Niel, an environmental conservation professor at Finger Lakes Community College. Birds were caught in several nets and Van Niel later demonstrated bird banding, which the process of placing a small tag on a feathered creature, allowing for identification and tracking their location, age and other data. The birds were led to the nets by black oil sunflower seeds.
"When they're flying between the feeders and the trees, they're not paying attention to the nets," Donna Richardson, environmental education specialist for the center, said.
At one point outside, Van Niel was pleased one of the birds he was trying to untangle out of one of the nets kept making angry-sounding noises, saying the squawks indicate it is merely mad and isn't necessarily showing signs of stress, which can lead to health problems for the animals.
"That's good. If it's angry that means it's not stressed," Van Niel said.
The educator — who has been working for the college for about 22 years — said 20 birds were captured during the event. He said that while the birds do get tangled up, they are mostly simply irked at being caught, as opposed to actually being harmed. Van Niel said the event wasn't a research trip, but merely a way to educate people.
Arne Van Lueken, father of Aidan Van Lueken and other children present at the event, said being a "birder," or bird-watcher, is in his family's blood.
"I'm a birder, my mom's a birder. (Aidan)'s going to be a birder," Arne Van Leuken said.
Assisting Van Niel was Andrew Cayer, one of Van Niel's students at the college. Cayer, who wants to work with birds as a career, said his fascination with the creatures was borne from "childlike wonder," as his father would take him on hiking trips when he was younger and identify birds they would see for him.
"It kind of instilled it in me, wanting to know birds that (was)," Cayer said.
Another one of the college's students, John Day, a natural resources conservation major, said he brought along his son Trevor Day, 8, so his child would a few things and have fun in the process.
"It was a productive trip, but it also was also an educational trip," John Day said.
Van Niel, who was putting birds safely in small bags to carry them into the building for banding in front of the participants, said that he adores what he does.
Although one of his hands is peppered with small blood-drawing peck marks courtesy of woodpeckers caught in the nets, he's used to it.
"It's worth it for what he get to do," Van Niel said with a smile.
He said he has been an educator his entire life and that he loves teaching people.
"For them to gain new appreciation for birds is worth taking a day of my time and getting pecked by woodpeckers," Van Niel said.