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Banding (Ringing) a Bird

Each year worldwide, millions of birds are safely captured, banded and released unharmed. Bird banding* is one of the most effective methods to study the biology, ecology, behavior, movement, breeding productivity and population demographics of birds. Banding requires a great deal of skill, patience, knowledge, training and experience.

The following photographs illustrate the key steps to capture, band and study a bird.


The bird shown here is the Bananaquit, a honeycreeper commonly found throughout the Caribbean and parts of Central and South America. It has many local names including Paw Paw bird, Marley Quit, Bessie Coban, Yellow See-see, Gusanero, and Sucrier. This individual was captured and banded on Eleuthera Island in the Bahamas.


Bahama Bananaquit
Figure 1 - Bahama Bananaquit
(Coereba flaveola)

Mist Net
Figure 2 - Mist Net


One of the most effective methods to safely capture a bird is with a mist net. These nets are usually made of black nylon, and are virtually invisible when properly set up in a study area. This net can be seen against the sky, but is invisible against the vegetation.

There are several ways to safely hold a bird. This photo illustrates the bander’s hold. The bird is held firmly between the index and middle fingers of the hand, and the other fingers loosely cupped around the bird to control its movement. This hold allows the researcher to control the bird while examine the wings, tail, and body.


Bander’s Hold
Figure 3 - Bander’s Hold

Removing the band from the string
Figure 4 - Removing the band from the string


Once the species of bird is confirmed, a proper size, serially numbered metal band is removed from the band string. The band number is checked and recorded. These bands are issued to licensed banders by the Bird Banding Laboratory of the USGS.

The band is carefully fitted around the leg of the bird, squeezed to close it, and checked to make sure it is properly fitted to the bird.

Applying the band
Figure 5 - Applying the band


Measuring the Wing Chord
Figure 6 - Measuring the Wing Chord


A ruler is used to measure the wing chord to the nearest millimeter.

Breeding condition, body molt, and fat content are checked by gently blowing aside the feathers on the body.

Checking breeding condition
Figure 7 - Checking breeding condition

Uropygial Gland
Figure 8 - Uropygial Gland


Most species of birds have a special gland at the upper base of their tail that produces a mixture of waxes and oils. Birds coat their feathers with this oil to keep the feathers waterproofed, flexible and to help prevent parasites and disease.

The flight feathers are examined to determine the amount of feather wear and if feathers are being replaced (molted).

Checking molt and feather wear
Figure 9 - Checking molt and feather wear


Skulling the bird
Figure 10 - Skulling the bird


By wetting the feathers on the head, the skull can be seen and examined to help determine the age of the bird. The bird can then be weighed prior to its release.

The most important step is accurate recording of all data for each bird. This data is submitted to the Bird Banding Lab for entry into a central data base. If the bird is again encountered, a great deal of information can be gained about the birds age, movement, changes in plumage, weight, and fat and other parameters.

All data is carefully recorded
Figure 11 - All data is carefully recorded


Northern Parula
Figure 12 - Northern Parula


Banding Recoveries

Bird banding is rewarding. Banders have the privilege of observing up close some of the most fascinating and beautiful creatures that share our planet. Some banders are professionals who study birds for a living. Others are dedicated volunteers who have gained the skills and knowledge necessary to undertake this method of research.

If you are interested in observing or learning this skill, contact a bander near you and offer to assist, and always remember that the safety of the bird is uppermost in importance.

If you are a birdwatcher, remind yourself to look for bands, especially color bands, on the birds that you are observing. Record the information and report your sightings to the Bird Banding Lab. Your data will assist researchers to learn more about the bird you observed.

If you should recover a banded bird, you can report the band number and circumstances to the Bird Banding Lab by calling 1-800-327-BAND.

*Note: Under U.S. Federal law, it is illegal to handle any non-game wild bird, either dead or alive, or any part of a bird, including feathers and bones, unless you have a bird banding permit from the USGS Bird Banding Lab, or salvage permit from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, or are working directly under the supervision of someone with such a license. You are encouraged, however, to handle a recovered bird to read the band number and report it to the Bird Banding Lab.

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All images are courtesy of CWBO. All image copyrights are owned by CWBO. Any use of these images must have permission of CWBO.

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