How To Band Songbirds | Bird Banding
Banding birds is a useful and interesting tool
Have you ever heard of bird banding (or ringing as it is called in other parts of the world)? If you are interested in birds or are a birder, chances are you have heard something about this important conservation activity. If not, it's my goal to help teach you a little more about this useful tool used for studying the movement and habits of birds. This page will focus mainly on how to band songbirds, because that is what I am most familiar with and have done myself. I will briefly describe the bird banding process and why it is an important tool for research, conservation, and the general understanding of bird behavior and ecology.
Birds have fascinated me since I was a young child and I have been a birder for many years. After earning my Bachelor's degree in Ecology, I knew that I wanted to continue my education and focus on the study of bird biology for my Master's thesis project. I am currently working on a bird migration study, which I am undertaking at a local banding station. Before I even began my research, I was trained to band songbirds at the station and it it something that I really enjoy doing! While I still consider myself a beginner, I would love to briefly teach you about the bird banding process.
A Federal Permit is required to band birds in the United States, although Master Banders can have "sub-permittees" who band under them. Some states also require a state permit. Many banders (myself included) band under the supervision of permitted banders.
Most banding stations operate during spring and fall songbird migration periods.
Image: Blackburnian Warbler, photographed by me.
The Bander's Code of Ethics
Before I start listing the steps to bird banding, I want to list the the bander's code of ethics. This code has been issued by the North American Banding Council and is included in my copy of "The North American Bander's Study Guide." There are subpoints for some of these, but I will not list them. Click here for more information.
- Banders are primarily responsible for the safety and welfare of the birds they study so that stress and risks of injury or death are minimized.
- Continually assess your own work to ensure that it is beyond reproach.
- Offer honest and constructive assessment of the work of others to help maintain the highest standards possible.
- Ensure that your data are accurate and complete.
- Obtain prior permission to band on private property and on public lands where authorization is required.
What are bird bands exactly?
Bird bands are simply metal rings, each with a unique number imprinted on it. They are available in a variety of sizes and each species has one or two band sizes that have been designated as the best fit (on average) by the Banding Offices. A band should be loose enough to freely slide up and down a bird's leg, but tight enough that it does not slip off the foot. If a bander does not have a proper size band for a certain bird, the bird should be released unbanded. Sizes are coded and range from size 0A to 9C. If a bird cannot be identified it must be released unbanded to ensure integrity in data collection. Songbirds are banded with butt-end bands, some large bands are riveted (eagle bands) or have locking ends (raptor bands).
If a band is placed on a bird or the band is destroyed all the associated data is sent to a national bird banding laboratory. Because each band number is unique, records for individual birds are stored. If you find a dead bird that is banded, please report it to the banding lab at reportband.gov .
A special leg gauge can be used to make sure a band size is the proper fit! Sometimes an individual bird may have a larger leg or smaller leg size than average and require a different size band! The bird's leg is placed in a slot, each with a designated band size, to see what size would work best.
1. Capture birds in mist nets
There are a variety of methods used to capture songbirds, including baited traps, other traps, and mist nets. Mist netting is probably the most popular method used to capture birds for banding. The mesh is quite fine and is often difficult to see when facing it head-on. These nets are strung between two polls and are placed in the desired location, which depends on the banding objectives at a particular site. For example, the nets can be placed in a clearing between two shrubby/wooded areas in order to capture birds as they attempt to fly from one location to another.
The size of the net meshing varies depending on what the target species are. A 30-mm mesh is quite standard and is used to catch small to moderately-sized songbirds such as warblers, kinglets, thrushes, and sparrows. A 36-mm mesh is useful for catching larger birds including owls (NABC Bander's Study Guide)!
The mist nets contain rows of pockets, which birds fall into after hitting the net and usually they become tangled in the netting and cannot escape.
Mist nets can catch other animals besides birds and easily catch on clothing and other objects! It's not uncommon for a person to become tangled on one of these nets much to their chagrin! Only permitted banders may purchase mist nets and when they are worn out they should be burned rather than thrown in the garbage to prevent entangling wildlife.
2. Extract birds from nets - Image: a Black-capped Chickadee being removed from a net!
At most songbird banding stations mist nets are checked every 30 minutes and are operated for six hours after sunrise. Depending on weather conditions nets may be checked more frequently, such as every 15 minutes, if it's extremely hot. During a "net check" net pickers must extract all the birds caught in all nets. This process takes patience and experience to become proficient. Certain birds are easier to extract (such as thrushes), but some birds (such as chickadees and wrens) tend to wiggle and become quite tangled in the netting. A net picker never knows what s/he might encounter on a given net check!
I was taught to approach removing birds from the net like taking off a t-shirt. First, the bird's wings must be removed from the netting and then the netting can be pulled over the bird's head. Although often there is not one method that always works since birds can become tangled in the netting in an infinite number of ways or so it seems!
Pit-stop: How to hold birds
When banding or holding a songbird, you should use the "bander's grip" -- a secure position that keeps the bird still and enables you to take all the necessary measurements. In this grip, the bird's head is placed between your index and middle finger, respectively. Other grips are used for photographing birds, but are less secure and increase the chance of injury to the bird. I hold birds in my left hand while banding because I am right-handed. I can still use both of my hands for putting the band on, etc. while holding the bird in this grip.
4. Identification - Image: a female Yellow-rumped Warbler - affectionately known as a "butter-butt"
All birds must be identified before a band can be placed on its leg. Incorrectly identifying birds will lead to problems within the banding data and should be avoided. Most bird species can be identified fairly easily through the use of field guides, but sometimes measurements must be obtained in order to identify certain species. Flycatchers within the genus Empidonax can be tricky to identify as many look similar and are only distinguished by their calls.
5. Put the band on!
Once a bird has been identified, a band can be placed on its leg. The part of the bird's leg that we can see is actually a special toe bone, called the tarsus. A bird's ankle is above its tarsus near the belly. Banders use special pliers to put bands on birds, the pliers have a post to open a butt-end band (the type of band used for songbirds) and they have a round hole at the top that allows the bander to squeeze the band shut, but only to a certain size, so as not to crush the bird's tarsus. Different plier sizes are used for different sized bands.
After a bird has been identified and the band is placed on the leg, the following measurements are collected: 1) wing chord length. This is the length from a bird's "shoulder" to the tip of its longest primary or wing feather. It should be recorded in millimeters and should always be measured with the wing sitting naturally on the ruler (not flattened by pressing on the wing). 2) fat score. This is how much fat a bird has stored under its skin (see below). 3) mass or weight. 4) tarsus length. Not all banding stations record the tarsus length, but it can be a useful measurement. The tarsus is actually a special foot bone, which is a bird's lower leg.
Pit-stop: Why are fat stores good for birds?
Migrating birds use fat as fuel! Oftentimes, birds journey hundreds of miles during migration, and a bird with lots of fat has a lot of fuel to help it reach its destination. Of course, too much fat has the opposite effect and causes birds to slow down, but this is rare! Before migration birds become really active (sometimes even at night) and are anxious to eat a lot of food in order to gain fat stores for their impending trip. Some species even DOUBLE their body weight before migration -- imagine doubling your body weight in two months or less! Bottom line: birds have some outstanding adaptations, which enable them to migrate long distances and increase their chance of successfully reproducing.
When banding birds, we check for fat by blowing on the feathers, which exposes the skin. Fat is yellowish and is stored in certain areas on a bird's body, mainly in the furcular cavity (on the chest).
7. Aging and Sexing - Image: checking for feather molt (an aging technique) on a Red-bellied Woodpecker
Aging and sexing can be either simple and straightforward or complicated. Some birds are easy to sex -- if you've seen Northern Cardinals, you know that males and females are easily distinguished by their plumage (feathers). Birds that cannot be sexed by plumage are often recorded as "Unknown" sex unless it is breeding season (there are characteristics we can look for).
Aging birds is different in the spring than in the fall. During spring migration, birds are either "Second Year" or "After Second Year" meaning that they are either younger or mature birds. In the fall, birds are "Hatch Year" or "After Haching Year" meaning that they are either young from the current year or they are older.
Things can get tricky pretty quickly. Often the feathers are used to age birds and sometimes the differences can be subtle, especially to beginners. Learning how to age birds by looking at their feathers takes time and practice. I often find there is some ambiguity associated with this process and it can be subjective. A guide written by Peter Pyle meticulously lists aging and sexing techniques for every bird species in North America and is widely used by bird banders.
CLICK HERE to visit a great website with plenty of pictures that show the feather differences between young and old birds.
Information is recorded
All of the information collected for a particular bird is recorded onto a data sheet and is later submitted to the National Bird Banding Laboratory. Because all banders in North America are sending data to this lab, it's important that data be as accurate as possible.
8. All done, release the bird! - Image: Nashville Warbler taking flight
Most birds are in the hand for less than five minutes, during which time all of the above information is recorded! It may seem like a lot, but with practice, most banders become quite proficient at quickly processing birds. Less time in the hand minimizes risk of injury or stress. When releasing birds, we always watch to be sure that it flies away and is looking healthy!
Essential banding tools include reference books, pliers to open and close bands, rulers, a scale, calipers for measuring the tarsus and other fine measurements, and a slew of other useful objects! Bird banders really know how to take ordinary items and put them to good use while banding birds. :)
Why is banding important?
There are many reasons why banding birds is important and tagging birds to track their movements dates back hundreds of years. Firstly, banding birds has enabled us to see where birds go and how long birds live. Some birds return to the same location for years and are re-captured. Not only does this give us an idea about how long birds live in the wild, it also tells us information about bird migration timing and migratory routes. This information is invaluable from a conservation perspective! By looking at the fat stores birds have, we can also determine if a habitat in a particular area is useful for birds.
Banding birds also aids in the management of gamebirds, is useful for monitoring population numbers and for tracking individuals, and is also a great tool for educating the public about birds, science, and conservation. There is also a summer banding program called the Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship Program (MAPS), which takes place during the summer and monitors local breeding bird species and their young. Click HERE for more information about MAPS.
Image: male Black-throated Green Warbler photographed by me.
Want to start birding? Grab a field guide!
Are you interested in learning more about banding birds? Please check with your local birding groups to find out if there is a banding station near you! Many stations are open to the public and some offer classes if you are interesting in learning how to band birds. Banding stations always appreciate volunteers!