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Q&A About Bird Banding

What is banding? | Why are birds banded? | How many bluebirds have been banded? | I want to band my bluebirds - how do I go about it? | How can I become a bird bander? | What do I do if I find a dead bird with a band, or see one with my binoculars or spotting scope? How do I report a banded bird? | Why shouldn't untrained people band birds? | I am a pemitted bird bander. How do I trap adult bluebirds for banding? | Where can I get more information?

Q: What is banding?

A: Bird banding, also called "ringing" is where a small individually numbered metal or plastic ring (band) is attached to a bird's leg or wing, to identify the same individual later.

Q: Why are birds banded?

A: The purpose of putting leg-bands on wild birds is to aid research on subjects like dispersal and migration patterns, nest site fidelity, survival and productivity, behavior and social structure, determining lifespan, population, toxicology and disease, hunting pressure, etc. The first written record of metal bands on a bird's leg is from 1595, when one of Henry IV's Peregrine Falcons was lost in France and showed up the next day 1350 miles away in Malta. In just one year (2001), more than a million birds were banded in the U.S. and Canada, and 97,204 recoveries (encounters of banded birds) were reported to the Bird Banding Laboratory. Most were game birds like ducks.

Species # Banded # Encountered % Recovery
Eastern Bluebird
454,014
2,405
0.53%
Mountain Bluebird
255,795
719
0.28%
Western Bluebird
72,591
457
0.63%

Q: I want to band my bluebirds - how do I go about it?

A: "Believe it or not, banding birds is a procedure as closely regulated as the dispensing of controlled drugs," notes veterinarian Linda Ruth. Banding migratory birds is legal only with a permit. The banding program is a joint venture between the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the USGS. There are different permits for songbirds, waterfowl, raptors, etc. State permits may also be required.

"These permits are difficult to get and require significant training and experience, essentially, an apprenticeship under a "Master Bander." You must have a valid scientific basis (like a formal avian research project) to band birds," says Linda. According to the USGS, there are only 2000 Master banding permits and 3000 subpermits in the entire U.S. Master Banders must follow the rules to the letter.

"Bands are only provided to permittees, and very specific procedures must be followed during the banding process, and all data must be submitted to US Fish & Wildlife," says Linda. A substantial amount of paperwork is involved in both the permitting and reporting process.

Banding a bird - wikimedia commons photo
A Chaffinch being banded (also called "ringing") in Portugal. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Q: How can I become a bird bander?

A: Information on how to apply for a federal permit is found at the USGS site on Bird Banding Permits. As noted above, permits are difficult to obtain. Some states also require a state permit. The major permit holders are educational facilities, state and federal agencies, and Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship (MAPS) stations.

Even after several summers of banding with a Master Bander, you may not be eligible for a sub-permit.

If you're interested in getting involved with bird banding, find someone in your area (through a listserv or by contacting the MAPS Institute for Bird Populations) who bands, and offer to assist them, and learn the steps, considerations, and protocols. Federal bands are given out by BBL at no cost to the master bander. Auxilliary bands are paid for by the master bander. To become a master bander, you need three other master banders to vouch for your skills.

Q: What do I do if I find a dead bird with a band, or see one with my binoculars or spotting scope? How do I report a banded bird?

A: If you find a banded bird with a metal band (with or without a color marker), you can report it electronically, or call 1.800.327.2263. They will want to know the band number; and how, when and where the bird or band was found. They will send you a report telling you where the bird was originally banded, the date it was banded and the species if the information is available.

To report birds with just neck colors, colored leg bands, wing tags, or radio tags, click here.

Q: Why shouldn't untrained people band birds?

A: I am a strong proponent of avian research done in a responsible manner. Bird banding can yield valuable information. However, it must be done in accordance with protocols (e.g., the North American Bird Banding Manual - also see the Code of Ethics in their Study Guide) and law, by trained personnel. Here is some information about why training is so important, from retired veterinarian Linda Ruth:

1. It is illegal.

2. Being captured and handled is very stressful for the birds. During breeding season, they are already stressed by the demands of parenthood. Additional stress may reduce their ability to care for their offspring, or even threaten their lives. In a typical banding program, nets are checked every 30 minutes. If a bird is incubating eggs or feeding young, a long absence could kill their offspring. Any bird that appears excessively stressed, or is known to be incubating eggs or is newly fledged, is either banded and released before any of the others, or, in severe cases, released without banding. You can't just put out a trap and forget about it. In addition it is easy for people without extensive experience in handling birds to miss the subtle signs of excessive stress and handle a bird that should have been released immediately.

3. Although it is very rare when trained banders handle birds, birds are sometimes physically injured by the capture and handling process. In the grand scheme of things, much useful information is gained from the birds from physical measurements, recovery data, cloacal swabs, and feather samples and ticks that may be collected from birds. This includes information about West Nile Virus, tick-borne diseases, avian influenza, and genetics.

The mist nets commonly used to capture birds are very expensive, and must be set up properly to successfully catch and safely hold birds until they can be released. Removing birds from the net without injuring them is an art requiring a lot of practice. The longer it takes you to get them out, the more stressed the bird becomes. Some birds become so entangled in the net that they injure themselves. A sudden unexpected shower may cause a trapped bird to become chilled. Predators such as red squirrels, rats and weasels sometimes kill netted birds. In their frenzied efforts to escape, birds captured in solid traps may incur serious injury batting their heads and wings against the sides. Holding onto a struggling (and sometimes biting) bird is a lot harder than it looks, especially when you are holding on with one hand and trying to apply a band with the other. It is all too easy for an inexperienced handler to suffocate a bird, or break its delicate legs or wings. Birds can even bleed to death from a broken "blood feather."[Note: Injured birds should be given medical attention as needed to ensure their safety before returning them to the wild.)

4. Properly sized and applied bands do not harm birds. However, the band must be exactly the right size for the individual bird. Bands that are too small will chafe, eventually causing open sores and infection. Bands that are too loose can become entangled in vegetation or nest material, resulting in death by starvation. Banders have a large variety of band sizes at their disposal. Banding manuals list a recommended size for each species. However, if a bird's leg appears unusually large or small for its species, the leg is measured using a special device, and an appropriately sized band applied. Special tools are used to open and close the bands to assure that the edges do not overlap, or leave a large gap that can cause entanglement. These bands are only sold to banders with permits. Commercially available bands only come in a few sizes and are inappropriate for use in wild birds.  

5. Birds have excellent color vision, and application of colored bands can have unintended consequences. Investigators studying mating behavior in captive Zebra finches were surprised to discover that band color significantly affected the birds' behavior. Apparently, potential mates found some leg adornments attractive and others repulsive.  Birds wearing  "attractive" bands had more offspring, and lived longer than birds wearing "unattractive" bands. Color banding also greatly increased infidelity. The rate of extra pair fertilization in natural populations of zebra finches is less than 5%, in color-banded populations, over 25%. Clearly, color banding is not an innocuous procedure.
To read more, see: Zebra Finches - Natural History and Sexual Dimorphism, Mate Choice and Its Consequences, Parental Care and Parent–Offspring Relationships, Ploceidae

Q: I am a pemitted bird bander. How do I trap adult bluebirds for banding?

A: When trapping bluebirds for banding, a simple, manually operated shutter can be used (Fisher 1944.) A rectangular piece of cardboard (2" x 5") with a long string attached is nailed to one side of the entrance. After a bird enters the hole, pull the string from about 100 feet away to cover the hole. A Van Ert inbox trap (designed for trapping nuisance House Sparrows in nestboxes) can also be used.

Females may abandon a nest after being handled, so wait to trap them until the later stages of incubation. Inbox trapping does not work as well later in the later stages of nestling development, as young are fed while the adult hangs on the entrance hole (without entering), although they may still enter to remove fecal sacs. Adults may also be caught during cold weather when they use boxes for roosting. See more information on nesting cycles for Eastern | Mountain and Western Bluebirds.

References and More Information:


The first records of banding in North America are those of John James Audubon, the famous American naturalist and painter. In 1803 he tied silver cords to the legs of a brood of phoebes near Philadelphia and was able to identify two of the nestlings when they returned to the neighborhood the following year.
- USGS, A Brief History of Bird Banding

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