Meet Yukon’s tiniest musicians

Ben Schonewille holds a songbird like a cigarette. The bird in question is about the length of a cigarette, too. It's a Ruby-crown Kinglet, one of North America's smallest birds.

Ben Schonewille holds a songbird like a cigarette.

The bird in question is about the length of a cigarette, too. It’s a Ruby-crown Kinglet, one of North America’s smallest birds.

Its inquisitive head pokes out between Schonewille’s index and middle fingers as he carefully loops a tiny aluminum band around one leg.

Each movement is gentle and deliberate. Schonewille’s spent years learning how to handle songbirds in such a way as to not harm the fragile critters. The bird doesn’t stir.

We’re in McIntyre Marsh. It’s a buffet for birds, despite the crust of ice still coating the shallows.

They fatten up here before migrating further north to breed and nest. The ruby-crown kinglet is probably filling up on bugs and tree sap before continuing on to Old Crow.

Schonewille brushes the bird’s head to expose a bright red mohawk from beneath its dusky grey feathers. Only males have the red crown. It usually stays hidden, except when the bird is excited.

Next, Schonewille gently blows on the bird’s breast. Beneath the feathers, yellow stores of fat are visible beneath the skin.

Schonewille notes the fat, jots down a few other details and gently tosses the bird. It flutters away.

Schonewille and his colleague, Ted Murphy-Kelly, started the songbird observatory here, just off Fish Lake Road outside Whitehorse, last week.

It’s a part-time, purely volunteer operation that has as much to do with stirring public attention in songbirds as in conducting research.

Bird banders are typically not publicity seekers. They’d probably prefer to quietly tromp through swamps in gumboots early in the morning, out of the public eye.

But after the Yukon government cut funding to bird observatories for 2009, Schonewille and Murphy-Kelly realized the money they need is tied to public support.

Money from Yukon’s Environment Department dropped to $4,000 from $15,000 this year.

As a result, the Teslin observatory, which Schonewille has operated since 2005, won’t open this spring. And the Albert Creek observatory, founded by Murphy-Kelly in 2001, will operate on a reduced schedule.

So the two men have set up the Whitehorse observatory until the end of May, and they’re inviting anyone interested to come see what they do.

Today, a Grade 9 class from Wood Street’s outdoor education program are visiting. They’re getting an idea of what it’s like to work as a biologist in the field.

Beside Schonewille, a dozen colourful cloth bags sit on a folding table. Each bag holds a bird Schonewille has carefully plucked from the 14 mist nets he’s strung in the area.

The nets are made of threading so fine they’re nearly invisible to the human eye until you’ve stumbled into one.

From one bag, Schonewille pulls a rusty blackbird. It’s jet black with beady gold eyes.

The bird is listed as a species of special concern under Canada’s Species At Risk Act. It means the bird is likely to become endangered or extinct unless precautionary measures are taken.

So far, there’s no recovery strategy in place.

The bird’s global population is believed to have declined by 85 per cent since the 1960s. Habitat loss is the big reason for the rusty blackbird’s decline.

Many of the birds once wintered in the forests of the Mississippi flood plain. But in the 1970s most of these forests were felled to make way for farmland and housing.

As well, the birds are still considered pests in Canada and the US. In both countries, farmers shoot the birds.

There are now anywhere between 110,000 to 1.4 million of the birds in the world. Seventy per cent of the global population breeds in Canada’s boreal forests.

To learn more about rusty blackbirds, Schonewille plucks a feather.

The feather will be sent to Canadian Wildlife Services, which will conduct stable isotope analysis to learn more about the bird’s migration path.

The Grade 9s already know about this type of research. They learned about DNA last week.

The feather is plucked so that it grows back. If cut, it won’t. Losing the inner-feather won’t affect the bird’s ability to fly.

The rusty blackbird flies off with a squawk.

Next is a yellow-rump warbler.

“Or, as I like to call them, butter-butts,” says Schonewille.

The name is descriptive. The bird has one striking yellow patch on its throat and another on its rump.

It’s probably the most common warbler in the Yukon.

But just the other day, Schonewille and Murphy-Kelly came across an unusual butter-butt. It had a band that originated in Oregon.

They knew because each band has a 10-digit number that can be looked up on the internet.

It was the first foreign recapture of the 40,000 birds that have been banded in the Yukon.

To learn more about the source of the ethereal trilling that now fills the streets of Whitehorse, pay Schonewille and Murphy-Kelly a visit. They will be set up each weekend, weather permitting, until the end of May. Visiting hours are from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m.

The observatory is four kilometres down Fish Lake Road, to the left. If you see the turnoff for Icy Waters Fish Farm, you’ve gone too far.

Park near the gazebo and follow the signs.

Don’t forget gumboots, and binoculars if you have them. Please leave pets at home.

Contact John Thompson at