How Banding Supports Bird Conservation Science

Bird banding is a valuable tool in the study and conservation of many bird species. In this series, we’ll explain bird banding practices and explore insights gleaned from the observation of banded birds here on North Carolina’s coast and beyond.

What Is Bird Banding?

In bird banding, a bander places a small, lightweight ring around a bird’s leg. The band, which may be metal or plastic, usually carries a unique code of letters or numbers, identifying that individual. It can also identify a group that the individual is a part of, such as all birds that hatched from a particular site in a particular year.

The bander may also apply multiple un-coded bands of different colors to different locations on a bird’s legs. In this case, it’s the combination of colors and locations that identifies the bird to human observers.

Other techniques are also used to mark birds. Geese, which spend much of their time with their legs underwater and unobservable, sometimes receive collars, and large birds like wading birds, gulls, or raptors may be marked by patagial tags, which are plastic tabs attached to their wings. You can see different types of bands here.

Why Band Birds 

Birds are, by and large, highly mobile creatures, crossing continents and even hemispheres in their annual migrations. Banding—also called ringing—has been used for over a century by biologists to study the movements, behavior, and survival of birds. Since members of a species generally look alike to people, bird banding uniquely marks individuals so they can be recognized if they are seen again, allowing scientists and other interested parties to track individuals over time.

To understand the entire life-cycle of shorebirds and waterbirds—where they go, how long they live, what resources they need—biologists band and track many species of birds, including shorebirds.

Shorebirds—relatively long-legged sandpipers, plovers, and their relatives—are ideal subjects for banding since they spend a lot of time walking, making it easier to see bands on their legs. However, even tiny songbirds can be banded.

By tracking the movements of individuals, biologists learn about their movements and migrations, longevity, mortality, population demographics, behavior, and much more. For example, by banding Red Knots wintering in southern Chile and Argentina, researchers learned that members of this population, the rufa subspecies, stop over at various sites along the U.S. Atlantic coast, most famously in Delaware Bay but at many other locations on the Atlantic seaboard, including North Carolina.

Although banding provides fascinating glimpses into the life history and behavior of birds, it also is a valuable tool in conservation. Every time a banded bird is observed, it sends an important message: “I am here. This is what I need.” By looking at the sites birds use, we can learn where to focus conservation efforts and track the health of populations.

For example, the Piping Plover is a tiny shorebird found nesting in the Great Plains, on the shore of the Great Lakes, and along the American and Canadian Atlantic seaboard. By banding individuals from these three breeding populations, researchers found out where they spend their winters. It turns out that the different populations tend to winter in different general areas.

The Great Lakes population favors the southeastern U.S., so protecting that group’s wintering grounds means working for conservation there. Meanwhile, the location of most of the wintering Atlantic Piping Plovers was not known until recent surveys in the Bahamas turned up over 1,000 Piping Plovers, most from the Atlantic breeding population, as revealed by their bands. Biologists who work hard to protect these birds when they are nesting now also know where to work to protect them while there are wintering.

What to Look For

Spotting and reporting banded birds is a great way to become a citizen scientist and contribute to knowledge of birds.

The easiest way to read a band code is to find one on a deceased bird. Though finding a dead bird is a sad event, useful information may be obtained from one that is banded. Check the legs for bands and remove the band or write down any numbers or letters on the band. Also note the date when and location where you found it. Always use common sense and wash your hands after handling a dead animal!

Since bands on shorebirds are generally easy to notice, pack your binoculars, spotting scope, or camera for your next beach outing. When birdwatching, take note of birds’ legs and look for bands. Do take care, though, not to flush flocks in the course of looking for bands.

If you find a band on a live bird, observe carefully and patiently and record the following information:

  1. The location of the bands. Note if bands are on the left or right leg. Left and right leg should always be the bird’s left and right, not yours. Note which bands are above or below the ankle joint. The joint in the middle of a bird’s leg is actually its ankle, which explains why birds look like they have a backwards-bending knee.
  2. The color of the bands and the color of the writing, if any, on the bands. Many banded birds wear only a metal band with engraved numbers. These bands are not generally designed to be read in the field, though careful observation, patience, good optics, and good luck sometimes make it possible. Other birds will carry larger bands with larger numbers and letters. These field-readable bands are designed to be read on a free wild bird in the field. Usually there are only a few characters in the band code, making it easier to read.
  3. The code, if any, that is on the bands.
  4. The date and location of your observation.

Reading bands can take some persistence and practice, and it helps to know what to look for. The American Oystercatcher Working Group has a guide to banded oystercatchers, which is also generally applicable to other species as well.

Once you have made your observation, please report it to the right band clearinghouse. You can email our staff to help determine where your band report should go or refer to the websites below.

How you can help, right now