DEER LODGE - Even a swarm of mosquitoes couldn't dampen the excitement of young children eager for a chance to hold a black-capped chickadee one morning earlier this week at Grant-Kohrs National Historic Site.
The crowd from Montana Tech's Kids' College listened politely and fidgeted just a little while Sharon Fuller from the University of Montana's Avian Science Center delicately pulled a chickadee from a small blue sack.
"Why is the bird in a bag?" Peyton Cox asked.
Each bird is placed in a cloth bag so it isn't scared by the sights and sounds between the mist net where it was caught and the station where it will be banded with a unique identification number, explained Kristina Smucker, who created the center's Bird's-Eye View Education Program.
Fuller then measured wing length and gently blew on the bird's belly, lifting its feathers so she could identify gender. She explained the purpose of a female's brood patch between the small puffs of air.
"She puts that on top of the eggs to keep them warm," said Fuller, extending her hand so the children could see the bald spot on the bird's belly.
"Birds actually use their bare skin to warm the eggs, not feathers," Smucker said. "You can quiz your parents tonight and ask, ‘How do birds keep their eggs warm?' "
Chatter grew as the kids hatched plans to do just that.
Meanwhile, Fuller carefully bent a small silver band around the bird's leg with special pliers. "No other bird in the whole wide world" has the same number, she said, so scientists can track its global travels.
The educational program's purpose, however, extends beyond the value of migration and nesting data. This is a hands-on opportunity for the public - and particularly kids - to see scientists in action researching the effects of past mining on riparian wildlife, including riverside songbirds.
"Who wants to go check the nets?" asked Craig Ballou after one young girl released the chickadee from her hands, back to freedom.
A long line of chatty children followed the charismatic Twin Bridges schoolteacher to the nearest of 10 mist nets tied among willows growing at the river's edge.
The nets were empty, so Ballou stopped nearby to stand on a patch of dirt conspicuous among the surrounding greens.
"There's a reason nothing grows right here," Ballou said. "This is so poisoned nothing can grow here."
Toxins carried by the Clark Fork River and trapped in the soil have killed some plant life and reduced the size of the riparian habitat downtstream from Butte and Anaconda's historic mines and smelters.
The riverside ecosystems account for a small percent of the state's landmass, but are home to much of Montana's wildlife, including nearly half its birds, said Avian Science Center director Dick Hutto. And that makes riparian areas important for environmental study.
Smucker said the effects of mining will likely be captured by her project comparing the damaged area near Grant-Kohrs to a pristine site near Rock Creek.
"We've not captured a lot of juvenile birds here, which makes me curious," Smucker said.
She can't be sure without a few more years of data, but the nesting success of birds near rivers damaged by mining could be lower.
On Monday morning, the researchers captured less than 20 birds, while nearly 100 were banded at a Rock Creek event earlier this summer.
The difference, however, might be exaggerated by a coincidental western tanager migration caught in Rock Creek's nets, Smucker said.
Nonetheless, she and Ballou both expect banding planned at Rock Creek this Friday to be more exciting than the one at Grant-Kohrs, if only because they won't need to wear rain gear, thick shirts and mesh face masks to protect themselves from mosquitoes.
"There's a reason we look like geeks," Ballou joked.
Many of the animated kids already knew quite a bit about mining and its effects on nature before visiting the banding station.
"Who knows what they mine for in Butte?" Smucker asked.
The kids shouted the words "copper" and "zinc" without hesitation, quickly adding "silver" and "gold" to the chorus.
Many of the children nodded when Smucker asked if they'd seen Berkeley Pit in Butte.
"The water is really acidic," she said.
Peyton Cox quickly followed with, "and purple!"
"It's really dirty water," young Sami McAdams explained.
Smucker told the kids how toxins hurt plants growing along a river's edge as she pointed at a large aerial photograph of spotted land near a river's edge.
"See all these yellowish brown patches?" said Smucker before asking why it's bad.
"There might be less places for birds to have homes," McAdams said, her response simply summarizing the purpose of Smucker's research.
The avian scientist continued and explained the significance of the Milltown restoration project near Missoula in protecting the homes of birds, other wildlife and humans.
Ballou, like all the staff, hopes the kids not only remember the banding for the excitement of holding a wild bird, but also the lessons on responsible land stewardship.
"The children are the ones who will inherit what we leave them," Ballou said. "Hopefully they will learn you can improve the world if you want to."
Jayme Fraser is a junior studying print journalism at the University of Montana who is interning at the Missoulian this summer. She can be reached at 523-5241 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.