What is mist-netting?

April 2, 2020
Wildlife Research

Ever wondered how scientists figured out that birds go South for the winter or how much birds weigh? If you’ve ever watched or tried to photograph a bird, you can start to understand the frustration of trying to study them. The challenge only grows when it comes to researching small, shy species that hide in vegetation. 

Scientists gather information about birds in a variety of ways, from observing them in their natural habitat to catching them to take morphological data like weight, size, and health. The tool scientists use to catch birds is called a mist-net, a very fine net strung between poles within a birds’ habitat. The net is nearly invisible (even to people!) until you are standing right next to it, meaning unsuspecting birds will plop in and get tangled, stuck until an ornithologist lets them out. 

It might sound uncomfortable or dangerous for the bird, but studies have shown that mist-netting, when conducted by experts, is safe for the animals. Many ornithologists who work with mist-nets are certified to catch and ‘ring’ birds, which means to place a marker around their leg that can be tracked to understand their migratory patterns. 

What to expect while mist-netting

Many of our sites use mist-netting to conduct research on the bird populations in the area. You may join our naturalists to experience mist-netting, and maybe even release birds once they have been measured. 

If you join a naturalist to go mist-netting, you should wear comfortable, outdoor clothing such as long pants, a hat, and walking boots. Specific clothing items may vary depending on whether you are in the rainforest or a meadow. In most cases, the mist-nets will already be set up in a determined location and will be opened by the ornithologist to demonstrate the technique. 

Then, you wait. You will be taken to a comfortable spot about 10 minutes away from the nets to avoid disturbing the birds and will wait 30-60 minutes between net checks. You can bring a book or strike up a quiet conversation with your naturalist about their research and work.

Every hour (or half-hour in regions with hummingbirds), you will check all the nets and study any species caught. Help out your ornithologist by writing down the measurements on a sheet as they take data on the species, weight, fat, and plumage. This time is also great for taking pictures of the birds up close. The ornithologist may place a small ring around the bird’s leg to mark that they have been caught for future studies. This ring helps us learn how birds migrate, as a naturalist on the other side of the world who catches this bird in a net can track the first ringer and tell us where the bird ended up!

You and your naturalist will then release all the birds and return to your tarp to wait. This process is repeated 3-4 times before closing the nets for the day. 

Mist-netting is a crucial tool for studying birds, but it cannot stand alone. Ornithologists also spend plenty of time walking through the woods to spot birds in the wild and learn about their natural behaviors. Join one of our birdwatching tours to learn more and see for yourself!

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