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Boo Curry, 29, blows on bird skulls.

That's not all she does when she goes through a list of checks on captured songbirds. The biological science technician from the University of Montana-Missoula measures wing span, counts feathers, blows on the bird's underbelly to check gender, gets the weight, and then — before setting the little, often colorful bird free — she bands it.

Curry blew on the bird's skulls Thursday morning near Silver Bow Creek because the bone underneath the feathers can help indicate the bird's age.

The project Thursday was about more than just counting and banding birds so researchers at the University of Montana-Missoula's Bird Ecology Lab can track them. As it turns out, songbirds can teach kids a story about historic mine damage.

And that's just what Curry and her colleagues from the Bird Ecology Lab and the Institute for Educational Opportunities at Montana Tech aimed to do Thursday morning by inviting 24 students — including 13 from Butte — from around Montana to hang out at a bird banding station on the Silver Bow Greenway Trail southwest of Rocker.

That's because the growing number of song birds that are now breeding along lower Silver Bow Creek are an indicator of the improving ecological system since the state remediated and restored that area west of Butte.

Setting nylon nets in the midst of green grass and shrubs near Silver Bow Creek, the researchers caught songbirds, many of them tiny — such as the yellow warbler, which on average only weighs 9 grams.

The ornithological researchers caught around 10 birds Thursday. From an American robin to a Bullock's oriole to a willow flycatcher, a variety of birds landed in the nets, and researchers measured, recorded, and banded the winged creatures while students stood around in the still-patchy wild grass looking on.

Some say the restored Silver Bow Creek is remarkable compared to what it once was. Some old-timers say the creek once "ran red."

The damage was so extensive, there were no bugs in the creek, much less fish.

But just as the bugs and the fish have made a comeback since the state's cleanup, so have the songbirds.

They could be heard warbling in the spring sunshine Thursday morning.

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Nat'l Resources / General Reporter

Environmental and natural resources reporter for the Montana Standard.

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