If you’ve ever spotted a wild bird with a tiny metal hoop around its foot, you may have wondered what the purpose of that tag is, and what data it can possibly tell us.
Bird banding – also known as ringing – is more crucial than ever before, allowing us to understand population changes and species decline. But how do these tiny rings aid research, and what can we learn from bird banding? Keep reading to understand the huge value of tagging and tracking birds.
Bird banding is an important tool that gives us incredible insight into some valuable aspects of birdlife that we would otherwise be unable to track. Banding lets us know how far birds travel, if they return to the same breeding grounds, and the natural lifespan of different species in the wild.
By comparing data from ringed birds, it is possible to accurately estimate any population increases and decreases, and investigate how environmental and habitat changes may impact where birds breed, feed, and establish territories.
Migration patterns can also be studied and a greater understanding gained of just where visiting birds go when they leave our shores. In the unfortunate event of finding the corpse of a ringed bird, important data may be obtained about the spread of avian diseases or to support research into life expectancy of different species.
If you’re interested in learning more about the history, significance and practicalities of bird banding and how it is done, please keep reading.
Black-headed Gull (Larus ridibundus) ringed (banded) bird
Bird banding involves fitting a small colored ring to a bird’s leg – each tag is stamped or engraved with a unique code which is then registered on a database and can be used to support research into global bird population trends and habits.
Although leg rings are possibly the most widespread form of tagging used around the world, birds can be tagged in other ways too, including leg flags on herons, waders and long-legged shorebirds, neck collars on geese, and wing tags on birds of prey.
If you spot a bird with a band on its leg, it means that it has been handled by humans at some point in its life. Domestic birds may be ringed as a form of ID so they can easily be returned to their owners if they somehow escape.
In wild birds, bands are also a form of ID, and each is marked with an individual tracking number and address that are used when reporting data back to the ringing authority.
Scientific bird ringing of a robin by an ornithologist
In the United States, bird banding is controlled by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and a federal banding permit is required. Only official bands issued to approved federal banding associations are authorized for use, and must only be fitted by licensed professionals.
There are only around 2,000 Master banding permits in the US, with the same number of sub-permits, which have been granted to federal and state conservation agencies, university research departments and bird observatories.
In the UK, only specially trained ornithologists are allowed to fit bands to wild birds, and need a licence to do so. Permits are issued by the British Trust for Ornithology, on behalf of Natural England, Natural Resources Wales, and Scottish Natural Heritage.
In Northern Ireland, the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, Northern Ireland is responsible for granting ringing licences.
Ornithologists banding a bird
The world’s first official banding scheme was introduced in Germany in 1903, at the Rossitten Bird Observatory. Schemes in Hungary, Great Britain and Yugoslavia followed shortly afterwards.
The origins of bird ringing in the UK began with The Ringing Scheme in 1909, a combination of two different schemes – one at Aberdeen University and one connected to the British Birds journal.
The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) formalized the current scheme in 1937, and since then, increasingly sophisticated tracking and tagging methods have been introduced.
By 2021, more than 900,000 birds a year were ringed in Britain and Ireland.
In 1902, Paul Bartsch of the Smithsonian Institution banded 23 black-crowned night herons and is credited as the U.S.’s first official banding record.
The American Bird Banding Association was founded in 1909 and was responsible for banding until federal programs under the Migratory Bird Treaty of 1918 were set up in the U.S. (1920) and Canada (1923).
The U.S. Geological Survey, which collates data from banding reports submitted to the Bird Banding Lab (BBL), reported in 2022 that since 1960, over 64 million banding records had been received.
Perched Northern Cardinal with visible band on the leg
One common way of catching small birds to band them involves using a fine mesh mist net set up between two tall poles. Mist nets cause no physical harm and minimal distress to the bird itself and the ringing that follows is a relatively quick and simple process.
Blue Tit in mist net, ready for ringing
You should never attempt to remove a ring from a wild bird yourself, as birds’ legs can be fragile and easily damaged if twisted or held too tightly.
There is no need for ringed birds to have their bands removed unless a licenced or registered organization authorizes the removal, if perhaps the band has become broken and is causing the bird distress.
The licensed expert will be able to safely remove a band by cutting it off, usually under general anesthetic.
The numbers on a bird’s band are unique to that particular bird, and are registered with a bird ringing authority, with details that can be found on a database, including the species, location ringed and any observation dates.
Bands offer information that allows anyone who finds a ringed bird to report their sighting, including the name of the banding authority.
Colors are frequently used on bird bands to make it easier to report a sighting from a distance.
A sleepy banded teal duck
In the United States, it is only legal for official federal bands to be placed on wild birds. These are not available for general sale and it is not legal for unlicensed individuals to fit unauthorized bands to wild birds.
Bands for ringing birds are available for sale only to registered and licensed individuals. These may be bought via the organizations themselves, which usually have a website that deals with online sales for members and those who are fully licensed.
Licences or permits are needed to fit bands to birds, and these are only granted to a limited number of experts with high-level training in bird handling.
In the US, Master banders, trained and working under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act are strictly regulated and are the only individuals who are legally allowed to tag wild birds for release.
In the UK, permits are granted under supervision of the British Trust for Ornithology, which operates on behalf of conservation agencies in each of the constituent countries of England, Wales and Scotland.
Commercial breeders do not need permits to fit bands to birds they breed, such as canaries and finches, as these birds are not released into the wild.
Juvenile Osprey being banded
Banding is not cruel or harmful, and although in certain situations the initial act of being caught in a mist net and handled while the ring is fitted and measurements are taken may be temporarily distressing, there are no long-term after effects and the band does not restrict or impede movement in any way.
Bird banding allows researchers to plot trends and in some cases avoid any future harm to the survival of bird species and its said that any momentary stress from the initial fitting is outweighed by the benefits of having valuable data to study.
Colour-ringed Turnstone, Devon, UK
Data from dead tagged birds adds to the vital research into trends in bird populations worldwide. In the past, banding agencies required finders of tagged birds to send the tagged bird’s body to them for investigation, but it’s becoming increasingly the case that just reporting the number on the band is more than enough for the researchers to work with.
If you are in Europe, the organization Euring covers all European tagging schemes and has an online system of reporting the ring number, depending on the style and color of the ring.
The British Trust for Ornithology deals specifically with tagged birds found in Britain, and invites any finders of dead ringed birds to report the tag details online before safely disposing of the bird’s body.
In the United States, findings should be submitted to the United States Bird Banding Lab, including the date and location found and the circumstances of the sighting or band recovery.
A certificate of appreciation is usually sent to acknowledge a report, which gives details of the species, age, any previous sightings and measurements.
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