Ohio Bird Banding Association

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About Bird Banding

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Bird banding data are useful in both research and management projects. Individual identification of birds makes possible studies of dispersal and migration, behavior and social structure, life-span and survival rate, reproductive success and population growth.

Every bander participates in studies of dispersal and migration by sending all their banding data in to a central site like the Bird Banding Laboratory. When banded birds are captured, released alive and reported from somewhere else, we can reconstruct the movements of the individual bird.

In this way we have learned that some species go south in one pathway and return north by another pathway. Nesting and wintering grounds have been located for some species, and specific nesting grounds have been connected to specific wintering areas.


Researchers have been banding birds since the late 1500′s. The earliest record of a metal band attached to a bird’s leg was about 1595 when one of Henry IV’s banded Peregrine Falcons was lost in France. It showed up 24 hours later in Malta, about 1350 miles away, averaging 56 miles an hour!

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.

A system for bird banding did not really develop until 1899, when Hans Mortensen, a Danish school teacher, began placing aluminum rings on the legs of European teal, pintail, white storks, starlings and several types 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.

In 1902 Paul Bartsch, a well-known conchologist, whose hobby was the study of birds, began the first scientific system of banding in North America. The real pioneer bander in the Americas was Jack Miner who established a waterfowl sanctuary near Kingsville, Ontario. Between 1909 and 1939 he banded 20,000 Canada Geese alone, many of which carried bands returned to him by hunters

By 1909 the American Bird Banding Association had been formed to organize and assist the growing numbers of bird banders. By 1920 banding was so widespread that it could not be coordinated by a private group, so the Bureau of Biological Survey (now the United States Geologic Survey) and its counterpart the Canadian Wildlife Service accepted the offer to take over the work of the Association. This has been a joint effort to oversee the activities of dedicated banders all over the world ever since.

    A. Determining Life Span
   Banding allows the determination of the minimum length
   of time that an individual bird lives. Without an individual
   marker, there would be no way to determine  if the
   Cardinal that is  outside my window is the same bird
   that I saw last year or  not. With a bird band, if I catch
   that Cardinal today and band it, I will  know if that
   one bird  is caught again in the future.

We have learned, for example, that it is not uncommon for individuals of some species to live 10 to 20 years or more in the wild. Small songbirds that we may think of as short-lived may live a surprising length of time. We have a record of a hummingbird living as long as 12 years! However, the average life span of the majority of the individuals is much shorter.

B. Population Studies
Banding and marking birds can also be used to estimate the numbers of birds in a population using a mark-recapture technique. Birds are marked in one time period, and then recaptured or resighted in a later time period. The number of birds marked in the first period and the ratio of marked to unmarked birds in the population in the second period allow the total population of birds to be estimated

C. Estimating Survival and Productivity
Banding data allows for the comparison of normal, wild banded birds with birds that may have had their survival altered by exposure to oil or other hazards. Survival and Productivity can be studied by using a constant effort banding site. The Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship (MAPS) program is a cooperative research effort of the Institute for Bird Populations and banders throughout North America.

D. Toxicology and Disease Research
Birds can be vectors of diseases which effect people, including encephalitis and Lyme disease. Sampling wild birds for serious disease helps determine the prevalence of the disease in the population. Banding allows for birds that have been sampled once to be avoided in the next sample–or to be resampled, depending on the study.
Toxicology projects using banding assess the turnover time or how long birds use an area once they arrive in it. This allows the researcher to determine the potential exposure of birds to chemicals in contaminated areas.

E. Other Uses of Game Bird Data
An analysis of banding information from game birds is completed annually and is essential for hunting regulations development and for detecting changes in waterfowl populations. Banding data can be used to assess the hunting pressure, estimate productivity and survival, and measure the vulnerability of the age/sex classes to hunting pressure.


Because banding birds requires capturing the birds and handling them before the banding takes place, the banding of birds in the United States is controlled under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and requires a federal banding permit. Some states require a state permit as well. Only official federal bands may be legally placed on birds that are released to the wild within the United States.

Banders are a select group. There are currently only 2000 Master banding permits and 2000 subpermits in the United States. Master Banders include federal and state agencies, university researchers, bird observatories, and private individuals.

Persons who want to apply for a banding permit must be at least 18 years of age, able to identify all of the common birds in their different seasonal plumage, and must be able to show that they are qualified to safely trap, handle, and band the birds and, finally must have a well defined research project. The applicant is responsible for acquiring all training. The best way to learn is in an apprenticeship program, working one-on-one with an active bander.  Applications are submitted to the Bird Banding Laboratory.  Applicants must furnish the names of three well-known bird banders or ornithologist who can vouch for their expertise as a bird bander.


There are several different types of bands used on wild birds in North America. Each type of band is made in many different sizes so that every bird has a suitable size band available for use by banders.

There are 23 standard size bands and 5 specially sized bands made to accommodate the smallest hummingbird to the large Trumpeter Swan.

The three most commonly used in the U. S. are Butt-end, Lock-on and Rivet bands.

1. Butt-end Bands

The most common type of band used in North America. This band is a round band with two edges that butt evenly together when closed correctly.

2. Lock-on Bands
Lock-on bands are specifically designed to stop birds with strong bills like hawks and owls from opening or damaging the band with their strong bill. The lock-on band is used on all medium to large birds of prey other than eagles. The band is like a normal butt-end band with two flanges of metal. The longer flange is folded over the shorter flange, effectively “locking” the band in place. The band is made of relatively soft aluminum and can be removed by the bander, but not by the bird. 

3. RivetBands

Like Lock-on Bands, Rivet Bands are also specifically designed to stop birds with strong bills like hawks and owls from opening or damaging the band with their strong bill. Rivet bands are made of harder metal than the lock-on band (but not stainless steel) and are used on eagles. The band has two short flanges of metal that project out from the seam where the two ends of the band meet. These flanges are side by side when the band is closed with a hole for a rivet. The band is riveted in place.

4. Other Bands
Other bands are sometimes seen on birds. Some of these can be reported to the Bird Banding Laboratory, but most cannot. To learn more about other types of bands Federal, Foreign, Pigeon, Falconry, State and Provincial, Private, and Cage Bird Bands are all types of bands that are considered “other” and are not reported to the BBL. Only two of the “other” band types are reported to the BBL: Federal and Foreign.

The Ohio Bird Banding Association. All rights reserved. 2011