By Jeff L. Makemson, Wildlife Biologist, Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries

Many hunters and birders refer to the bands placed around the legs of various species of birds as “bird bracelets.” These bands provide researchers and banding enthusiasts with valuable information. During the early years of banding, migration was the primary focus of banding studies. In 2002, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) celebrated 100 years of banding in North America, but people have been banding birds for centuries. The early banders were unregulated and not organized. They simply banded birds to satisfy their own curiosity.
 
The first record of a metal band attached to a bird’s leg was in 1595 when one of Henry IV’s banded peregrine falcons showed up about 1,350 miles away 24 hours after being banded. The bird had to have averaged flying 56 miles per hour during this time. Duke Ferdinand placed a silver band on a grey heron in 1669. The bird was recovered by his grandson in 1728, indicating the heron lived at least 60 years. The famous American naturalist and painter John James Audubon banded the first birds in North America. In 1803, he tied silver cords to the legs of a brood of phoebes near Philadelphia. The following year, he was able to identify two of the nestlings when they returned to his neighborhood.

A system for banding birds really developed in 1899, when Hans Mortensen, a Danish schoolteacher, began placing aluminum rings on the legs of European teals, pintails, white storks, starlings and several species of hawks. He inscribed the bands with his name and address in the hope they would be returned to him if found. His system of banding became the model for our current efforts. Paul Bartsch began the first scientific system of banding in North America in 1902. The real pioneer bander was Jack Miner, who established a waterfowl sanctuary near Kingsville, Ontario. From 1909-1939, he banded 20,000 Canada geese and many of the bands were returned to him by hunters.

In 1920, the Bureau of Biological Survey and the Canadian Wildlife Service teamed up to manage banding efforts. Fredrick Lincoln was assigned the task of organizing the banding program in the United States under the Bureau of Biological Survey (now the United States Geological Survey). He stayed in charge for 26 years and is credited with developing numbering schemes and record keeping procedures. Ever since, the North American banding program has been a joint effort to oversee banding activities worldwide.

Migration studies continue today, but now banding has a much broader application. Current research data on banded birds is used to study bird behavior and ecology, monitor populations, restore endangered species, assess environmental effects and disturbances, set hunting regulations, educate people about the environment, and address concerns about human health, safety, and the economy. Results from banding studies support national and international conservation programs such as the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, North American Mourning Dove Management Plan and Partners in Flight.

Virtually all species of birds are, or have been, banded. Currently, 1.2 million birds are banded and 85,000 bands are recovered each year. More than 63 million birds have been banded since the beginning of the program and 3.5 million have been recovered and reported to the banding office. The banding program of the future will change as technology, research, and management needs develop. As the banding program changes, the future will continue to be linked by the fundamental element that each band placed on a bird’s leg identifies the individual bird and when reported, leads to valuable information on its movements, survival, and behavior.

The hunter is a critical link in many banding studies. If you harvest or observe a banded bird, please call the number on the band to report it. Banded birds also may be reported online by visiting http://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/bbl. Reporters can keep the bands. They also will receive a certificate identifying the age, sex, date, and location where the bird was banded.