Bird ringing

An early bird band used by Jack Miner for geese.
A researcher uses a tool to attach the band to the leg of this European serin.
Pupils watch a bird ringing activity during "A day at the wetland", organised by environmental group WWF. The same individual, an adult Fringilla coelebs, had been caught again in the same area last year in Lesvos, Greece

Bird ringing or bird banding is the attachment of a small, individually numbered metal or plastic tag to the leg or wing of a wild bird to enable individual identification. This helps in keeping track of the movements of the bird and its life history. It is common to take measurements and examine conditions of feather moult, subcutaneous fat, age indications and sex during capture for ringing. The subsequent recapture or recovery of the bird can provide information on migration, longevity, mortality, population, territoriality, feeding behavior, and other aspects that are studied by ornithologists. Other methods of marking birds may also be used to allow for field based identification that does not require capture.[1]


The earliest recorded attempt to mark a bird was made by Quintus Fabius Pictor and Mark "Whispers" L'Ecuyer. These Roman officers, during the Punic Wars around 218–201 BC, were sent a crow by a besieged garrison, which suggests that this was an established practice. Pictor used a thread on the bird's leg to send a message back. A knight interested in chariot races during the time of Pliny (AD 1) would take crows to Volterra, 135 miles (217 km) away and release them with information on the race winners.[2] L'Ecuyer went on to mark hundreds of crows in his lifetime while Pictor's interest quickly waned.[3]

Falconers in the Middle Ages would fit plates on their falcons with seals of their owners. From around 1560 or so, swans were marked with a swan mark, a nick on the bill.[4][5]

Storks injured by arrows (termed as pfeilstorch in German) traceable to African tribes were found in Germany in 1822 and constituted some of the earliest evidence of long distance migration in European birds.[6]

Ringing of birds for scientific purposes was started in 1899 by Hans Christian Cornelius Mortensen, a Danish schoolteacher, using aluminum rings on European starlings (Mortensen had tried using zinc rings as early as 1890 but found these were too heavy).[7] The first banding scheme was established in Germany by Johannes Thienemann in 1903 at the Rossitten Bird Observatory on the Baltic Coast of East Prussia. This was followed by Hungary in 1908, Great Britain in 1909 (by Arthur Landsborough Thomson in Aberdeen and Harry Witherby in England), Yugoslavia in 1910 and the Scandinavian countries between 1911 and 1914.[8] In North America John James Audubon and Ernest Thompson Seton were pioneers although their method of marking birds was different from modern ringing. Audubon tied silver threads onto the legs of young eastern phoebes in 1803 while Seton marked snow buntings in Manitoba with ink in 1882.[9] Paul Bartsch of the Smithsonian Institution is credited with the first modern banding in the U.S.: he banded 23 black-crowned night herons in 1902.[10][11][12] Leon J. Cole of the University of Wisconsin founded the American Bird Banding Association in 1909; this organization oversaw banding until the establishment of federal programs in the U.S. (1920) and Canada (1923) pursuant to the Migratory Bird Treaty of 1918.[12]

Terminology and techniques

A banded ruby-crowned kinglet recaptured in a mist net

Bird ringing is the term used in the UK and in some other parts of Europe; while the term bird banding is more often used in the USA and Australia. Organised ringing efforts are called ringing or banding schemes, and the organisations that run them are ringing or banding authorities. (Birds are ringed rather than rung) Those who ring or band birds are known as ringers or banders, and they are typically active at ringing or banding stations.

Birds may be captured by being taken as young birds at the nest, or as adults, captured in fine mist nets, baited traps, Heligoland traps, drag nets, cannon nets, or by other methods. Raptors may be caught by many methods, including bal-chatri traps.

When a bird is caught, a ring of suitable size (usually made of aluminium or other lightweight material) is attached to the bird's leg, and has on it a unique number, as well as a contact address. The bird is often weighed and measured, examined for data relevant to the ringer's project, and then released. The rings are very light, and are designed to have no adverse effect on the birds – indeed, the whole basis of using ringing to gain data about the birds is that ringed birds should behave in all respects in the same way as the unringed population. The birds so tagged can then be identified when they are re-trapped, or found dead, later.

When a ringed bird is found, and the ring number read and reported back to the ringer or ringing authority, this is termed a ringing recovery or control. The finder can contact the address on the ring, give the unique number, and be told the known history of the bird's movements. Some national ringing/banding authorities also accept reports by phone or on official web sites.

The organising body, by collating many such reports, can then determine patterns of bird movements for large populations. Non-ringing/banding scientists can also obtain data for use in bird-related research.

A yellow-throated fulvetta with a numbered aluminum ring on its left tarsus

At times in North America, the bands have just a unique number (without an address) that is recorded along with other identifying information on the bird. If the bird is recaptured the number on the band is recorded (along with other identifying characteristics) as a retrap. All band numbers and information on the individual birds are then entered into a database and the information often shared throughout North American banding operations. This way information on retrapped birds is more readily available and easy to access.

Equipment used in bird banding


When deciding on bird banding equipment one must decide what species of bird they’d like to focus on. Many of the supplies used during an operation are determined by how big a bird is. The essential equipment includes a bird identification guide, mist nets, banding pliers, leg gauge, wing ruler, and a digital scale. However, before starting a bird banding operation a permit is necessary to purchase all of the equipment. This will then be taken into consideration that all the equipment purchased must be made to last, be efficient, safe on the birds, and easy for anyone to use.


The textbook Identification Guide to North American Birds part 1 and 2 by Peter Pyle is meant to help along during the banding process. Part 1 focuses on bird families of Columbidae to Ploceida. This book includes data for 395 species and 857 subspecies. That goes into details about how to determine plumage, molt patterns, measurements (wing, tail, bill, tarsus, and mass), sexing, and ageing information. Part 2 focuses on bird families of Anatidae to Alcidae. This book includes 310 species and 276 subspecies of waterbirds, falconiformes, and gallinaceous birds.The guide is meant for beginners and experts who need a little refresher in determining the morphology of the specific bird.[13] Some other textbook that focus on bird banding but looks into all types of birds around the world includes Bird Trapping and Bird Banding: A Handbook for Trapping Methods All over the World by Hans Bub.


Mist net come in a variety of sizes and lengths according to the bird’s size. All nets are made from a black nylon material and come with 4 shelves to catch the birds once they fly into the net. When purchasing a mist-net for sparrows the height usually stays the same at 2.7 meters but varies in width at 6 meters to 18 meters at a 30mm mesh. Determining net size for large sparrows to jays are 2.6 meters high and varying in widths at 6 meters to 18 meters at a 38mm mesh. If the study requires the banding of large owls a specific net is required and it is made with a heavier material to withstand the talons of the owl at 60mm mesh. Banding hawks also requires a heavier material at 100mm or 127mm mesh. However, some nets for larger birds include an additional shelve at 5 instead of 4.[14]

Banding Pliers

Banding pliers are an essential tool that helps place the band around a bird’s leg. These pliers come in different sizes as determined by how wide a bird’s leg is. Pliers are sized between 0A-1A, 2–3, and 3B, 3A, and 4.[13]

Leg Gauge

The band size is determined by using the leg gauge. A leg gauge is placed around the bird’s leg which determines the circumference of the leg. After identifying the size of a band it is then placed on around the leg with the help from the banding pliers.[14] In Australia, band size range from 1 to 15, plus special sizes for birds whose leg shapes require special bands, such as parrots and pelicans.[15]

Wing Ruler

When looking through the Pyle textbook some birds can be identified by the wing cord. The next essential piece of equipment is the wing ruler, which is used to determine the length of the wing for data collection, research purposes, or determining species.[14]

Digital Scale

Once the processing of the bird’s morphology has been completed the last piece of equipment used is a digital scale. This helps with determining the weight of the bird. This is the last step before releasing the bird.[14]


Certain bird species are for various reasons unsuitable for ringing. In some countries, such as Australia, there exist laws prohibiting banding of such species.[15]

Many very large birds, such as ratites, flamingos and the largest swans, are extremely difficult to band because the cost of making a band which is capable of securely fitting their strong, heavy legs is prohibitive. At the other extreme, the smaller species of river and tree kingfishers, todies and certain lories, have such narrow tarsii that no band can be securely placed around it without imposing danger to blood circulation. With some gamebirds, such as the Indian Peafowl, spurs on the legs interfere with the bands, which thus can cause injury to the birds.

Many species of cockatoo – which even if able to be banded require special bands to fit the unique shape of their legs – will crush bands with their powerful bills and claws.[16] The ability to overcome this problem varies between species, and with some such as the Gang-gang cockatoo, it is known to be too dangerous to attempt banding. New World vultures also cannot be banded on their legs because they urinate onto their legs, causing corrosion of the bands into a powdery oxide that sticks to the vulture’s leg and injures the bird. Dippers are also dangerously handicapped by ringing because the rings induce drag that makes it extremely difficult for them to catch prey in fast-flowing water.

Among species which can be safely ringed, there are major limitations among nomadic species of the deserts of the Eastern Hemisphere and cardueline finches of the taiga. The highly unpredictable movements inherent in these species’ lifestyles means that recovery rates are extremely low,[17][18] especially given generally low population densities within their habitats.

Similar schemes

Wing tags

This female great frigatebird has been tagged with wing tags as part of a breeding study

In some surveys, involving larger birds such as eagles, brightly coloured plastic tags are attached to birds' wing feathers. Each has a letter or letters, and the combination of colour and letters uniquely identifies the bird. These can then be read in the field, through binoculars, meaning that there is no need to re-trap the birds. Because the tags are attached to feathers, they drop off when the bird moults.

Another method is imping in a brightly colored false feather instead of a natural feather.[19]

A patagial tag is a permanent tag held onto the wing by a rivet punched through the patagium.[20]

Radio transmitters and satellite-tracking

Where detailed information is needed on individual movements, tiny radio transmitters can be fitted on to birds. For small species the transmitter is carried as a 'backpack' fitted over the wing bases, and for larger species it may be attached to a tail feather or looped to the legs. Both types usually have a tiny (10 cm) flexible aerial to improve signal reception. Two field receivers (reading distance and direction) are needed to establish the bird's position using triangulation from the ground. The technique is useful for tracing individuals during landscape-level movements particularly in dense vegetation (such as tropical forests) and for shy or difficult-to-spot species, because birds can be located from a distance without visual confirmation.[21][22]

The use of satellite transmitters for bird movements is currently restricted by transmitter size – to species larger than about 400g. They may be attached to migratory birds (geese, swans, cranes, penguins etc.) or other species such as penguins that undertake long-distance movements. Individuals may be tracked by satellites for immense distances, for the lifetime of the transmitter battery. As with wing tags, the transmitters may be designed to drop off when the bird moults; or they may be recovered by recapturing the bird.[23][24]

Field-readable rings

A colour-ringed herring gull

A field-readable is a ring or rings, usually made from plastic and brightly coloured, which may also have conspicuous markings in the form of letters and/or numbers. They are used by biologists working in the field to identify individual birds without recapture and with a minimum of disturbance to their behaviour. Rings large enough to carry numbers are usually restricted to larger birds, although if necessary small extensions to the rings (leg flags) bearing the identification code allow their use on slightly smaller species. For small species (e.g. most passerines), individuals can be identified by using a combination of small rings of different colours, which are read in a specific order. Most colour-marks of this type are considered temporary (the rings degrade, fade and may be lost or removed by the birds) and individuals are usually also fitted with a permanent metal ring.


Similar to coloured rings or bands are leg-flags, usually made of Darvic and used in addition to numbered metal bands. Although leg-flags may sometimes have individual codes on them, their more usual use is to code for the sites where the birds were banded in order to elucidate their migration routes and staging areas. The use of colour-coded leg-flags is part of an international program, originated in Australia in 1990, by the countries of the East Asian - Australasian Flyway to identify important areas and routes used by migratory waders.[25]

Other markers

Head and neck markers are very visible, and may be used in species where the legs are not normally visible (such as ducks and geese). Nasal discs and nasal saddles can be attached to the culmen with a pin looped through the nostrils in birds with perforate nostrils. They should not be used if they obstruct breathing. They should not be used on birds that live in icy climates, as accumulation of ice on a nasal saddle can plug the nostrils.[26] Neck collars made of expandable, non-heat-conducting plastic are very useful for larger birds such as geese.[27]

Some results

Ringed Larus ridibundus in flight

An Arctic tern ringed as a chick not yet able to fly, on the Farne Islands off the Northumberland coast in eastern Britain in summer 1982, reached Melbourne, Australia in October 1982, a sea journey of over 22,000 km (14,000 mi) in just three months from fledging.

A Manx shearwater ringed as an adult (at least 5 years old), breeding on Copeland Island, Northern Ireland, is currently (2003/2004) the oldest known wild bird in the world: ringed in July 1953, it was retrapped in July 2003, at least 55 years old. Other ringing recoveries have shown that Manx shearwaters migrate over 10,000 km to waters off southern Brazil and Argentina in winter, so this bird has covered a minimum of 1,000,000 km on migration alone (not counting day-to-day fishing trips). Another bird nearly as old, breeding on Bardsey Island off Wales was calculated by ornithologist Chris Mead to have flown over 8 million kilometres (5 million miles) during its life (and this bird was still alive in 2003, having outlived Chris Mead).

Ringing activities are often regulated by national agencies but because ringed birds may be found across countries, there are consortiums that ensure that recoveries and reports are collated. In the UK, bird ringing is organized by the British Trust for Ornithology. In North America the U.S. Bird Banding Laboratory collaborates with Canadian programs and since 1996, partners with the North American Banding Council (NABC).[28] The European Union for Bird Ringing (EURING) consolidates ringing data from the various national programs in Europe.[29] In Australia, the Australian Bird and Bat Banding Scheme manages all bird and bat ringing information.[30] while SAFRING manages bird ringing activities in South Africa.[31] Bird ringing in India is managed by the Bombay Natural History Society. The National Center for Bird Conservation CEMAVE coordinates a national scheme for bird ringing in Brazil.[32][33][34]

See also


  1. Cottam, C (1956). "Uses of marking animals in ecological studies:marking birds for scientific purposes". Ecology. 37: 675–681. doi:10.2307/1933058.
  2. Fisher, J. & Peterson, R.T. 1964. The world of birds. Doubleday & Co., Garden City, New York.
  3. Johnston-Symth, Stan. 2016. Broken Chain, Closed Ring: From Galley slave to world's first bird ringer, The Mark L'Ecuyer Story. S. Kincaid, Charleston, South Carolina.
  4. Charles Knight (1842) The Penny Magazine of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge: of the society for the diffusion of useful knowledge. Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (Great Britain) v.11 [n.s. v.2] (pp. 277–278)
  5. Schechter, Frank I. The Historical Foundations of the Law Relating to Trade-Marks. New York: Columbia University Press, 1925. p. 35
  6. Haffer, J. (2007). "The development of ornithology in central Europe". Journal of Ornithology. 148: 125. doi:10.1007/s10336-007-0160-2.
  7. Preuss, Niels Otto (2001). "Hans Christian Cornelius Mortensen: aspects of his life and of the history of bird ringing" (PDF). Ardea. 89 (1): 1–6.
  8. Spencer, R. 1985. Marking. In: Campbell. B. & Lack, E. 1985. A dictionary of birds. British Ornithologists' Union. London, pp. 338–341.
  9. North American Banding Council (2001). The North American Banders' Study Guide (PDF). Point Reyes Station, Calif.: North American Banding Council. pp. 3–4. Retrieved 18 July 2012.
  10. Tautin, John; Métras, Lucie (December 1988). "The North American Banding Program". EURING Newsletter. Retrieved 21 May 2012.
  11. Tautin, John (2005). "Frederick C. Lincoln and the Formation of the North American Bird Banding Program" (PDF). In Ralph, C. John; Rich, Terrell D. Bird Conservation Implementation and Integration in the Americas. Third International Partners in Flight Conference. 2002 March 20–24; Asilomar, California. Albany, California: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Research Station. pp. 813–814. Gen. Tech. Rep. GTR-PSW-191. Retrieved 21 May 2012.
  12. 1 2 Tautin, John (2005). "One Hundred Years of Bird Banding in North America" (PDF). In Ralph, C. John; Rich, Terrell D. Bird Conservation Implementation and Integration in the Americas. Third International Partners in Flight Conference. 2002 March 20–24; Asilomar, California. Albany, California: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Research Station. pp. 815–816. Gen. Tech. Rep. GTR-PSW-191. Retrieved 21 May 2012.
  13. 1 2 "Bird Banding Laboratory". Retrieved 24 September 2015.
  14. 1 2 3 4 "Welcome to AVINET". Retrieved 24 September 2015.
  15. 1 2 Australian Bird and Bat Banding Scheme; Recommended Band Size List – Birds of Australia and its Territories
  16. Rowley, Ian and Saunders, Denis A.; ‘Rigid Wing Tags for Cockatoos’; Corella, 1980, 4(1); pp. 1–7
  17. Newton, Ian; The Speciation and Biogeography of Birds; pp. 490–492 ISBN 012517375X
  18. Dean, Richard J.; Nomadic Desert Birds; p. 138 ISBN 3540403930
  19. Wright, Earl G (1939). "Marking Birds by Imping Feathers". The Journal of Wildlife Management. 3 (3): 238–239. doi:10.2307/3796107.
  20. Marion, WR; JD Shamis (1977). "An annotated bibliography of bird marking techniques" (PDF). Bird banding. 48 (1): 42–61. doi:10.2307/4512291.
  21. Rappole, J. H. & Tipton, A. R. (1991). "New harness design for attachment of radio transmitters to small passerines". J. Field Orn. 62: 335–337. JSTOR 20065798.
  22. Naef-Daenzer, Beat (2007). "An allometric function to fit leg-loop harnesses to terrestrial birds" (PDF). Journal of Avian Biology. 38 (3): 404–407. doi:10.1111/j.2007.0908-8857.03863.x.
  23. Mikael Hake; Nils Kjellén; Thomas Alerstam (2001). "Satellite tracking of Swedish Ospreys Pandion haliaetus: autumn migration routes and orientation". Journal of Avian Biology. 32 (1): 47–56. doi:10.1034/j.1600-048X.2001.320107.x.
  24. Kanaia, Yutaka; Ueta, Mutsuyuki; Germogenov, Nikolai; Nagendran, Meenakshi; Mita, Nagahisa & Higuchi, Hiroyoshi (2002). "Migration routes and important resting areas of Siberian cranes (Grus leucogeranus) between northeastern Siberia and China as revealed by satellite tracking" (PDF). Biological Conservation. 106 (3): 339–346. doi:10.1016/S0006-3207(01)00259-2.
  25. Australasian Wader Studies Group: Wader flagging Archived September 25, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.
  26. Kobe, Michael D. (1980). "Detrimental effects of nasal saddles on male ruddy ducks" (PDF). J. Field Ornithol. 52 (2): 140–143. JSTOR 4512636.
  27. USGS (2003) Auxiliary markers Archived May 7, 2009, at the Wayback Machine.
  28. John Tautin and Lucie Métras (1998) The North American Banding Program. Euring Newsletter Vol 2.
  29. "EURING". EURING. Retrieved 2014-06-02.
  30. ABBBS Archived July 19, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.
  31. "Safring". 2001-10-03. Retrieved 2014-06-02.
  32. "CEMAVE". Retrieved 2014-06-02.
  33. "Bird Banding Laboratory". Retrieved 24 September 2015.
  34. Avinet. 2014. Bird Banding Supply Company. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 27 Nov. 2014].


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