He was investigating the edges of a small pond on the Tips Ranch, when his metal detector “pinged.” The object was a tiny silvery ring, a quarter of an inch in diameter. The flat outside surface was also about a quarter of an inch wide, and it was covered with numbers and letters.
Balde wiped the soil from the ring and read:
NOTIFY GAME COMM
He had found a bird band. It was no longer on the leg of a bird. What type of bird? And when was it put on the bird?
These are questions that can be answered by sending the band number to the Texas Game Commission. Their records will identify the species that was banded, where, when and by whom.
There was just one problem. The Texas Game Commission no longer exists. It merged with the State Parks Board in 1963 to become the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Since that time, bands on game birds say to notify TPWD.
Perhaps a bit of history is in order.
In the late 1800s, it was clear that Texas needed some sort of office to regulate the depletion due to overfishing in the state. At that time, 130 Texas counties had no game or fish restrictions of any kind. In response, the legislature formed the office of Fish and Oyster Commissioner in 1895. In 1907, the commissioner was also given responsibility for hunting regulations, and the name was changed to the Game, Fish and Oyster Commission.
The duties of the office were manifold: It was “to enforce the laws of the state pertaining to birds, game, fur-bearing animals, fish and marine life; to issue hunting, fishing and trapping licenses; to proclaim open seasons and bag limits on various types of game and fish; to operate fish hatcheries; to administer game reserves; to supervise the oyster beds of the state; to control the sand, shell and gravel in the state’s public waters; and to inform the public about the state’s wildlife resources.” Quite a tall order, no?
In the late 1940s, informing the public had become a full-fledged conservation education program. The Commission dropped the word “oyster” from its name in 1951. (I believe it continued to supervise the oyster beds, but I am not sure of this.) Regulating hunting and fishing as well as education in conservation paid off. By 1962, over half of the counties in Texas had their fishing and hunting activities controlled by the Game and Fish Commission. And our state’s wildlife was given a fighting chance.
During this time a number of studies were undertaken on game birds. This required a way to identify individuals. The Bird Banding Office in Washington, D.C., had pioneered the use of numbered aluminum bands affixed to the legs of birds as a way to keep track of who was who. Precise sizes were specified for each species, as well.
We measured the band that Balde had found and determined that it is a size 3A. This size is used on Mourning Doves and quail, specifically the Northern Bobwhite. So what species wore this particular band?
When we checked with Texas Parks and Wildlife about the Band Number A13093, we were disappointed. No complete registry of the bands attached to birds before 1963 has survived. Sadly, we will never know whether the wearer of the band was a dove or a quail. Nor will we ever know where or when it was banded. We do know when it was found: June 19th, 2014, and where: by a watering hole on a ranch in northern Bee County.
And we know one other big thing about this mystery. This band was placed on a game bird at least 50 years ago!
Since this particular band was never submitted to the Game Commission, we can assume it was not a hunter’s kill. Most probably, this little quail or dove lived a full and happy life on a South Texas ranch. That is, until one day, it dropped down to a shrinking pond to get a drink and was ambushed by a Cooper’s Hawk. The hawk probably sat in a tree above the pond and feasted on fresh dove (or quail) meat. It may have dropped the metal band as it ate the bird. Or perhaps it even swallowed the band! The band could have been coughed up with the inedible bones and feathers as a pellet the next day. Over time, the matrix surrounding the aluminum marker rotted away.
Band No. A13093 sat silently in the mud for years. Its recent find only yielded up a mystery—a 50-year-old mystery! Its complete history will never be known, but perhaps the fiction I have created in the paragraph above will suffice.