Banding Birds: A Brief History

We sometimes get asked why we band birds. Bird banding allows us to study the movement, survival, and behavior of the birds we band, and get life histories for at least some of the birds we watch. Bird banding has helped researchers gather information on mortality rates, dispersal patterns, migration, behavior, social structure, and seasonal and long-term population trends. It allows us to track individual peregrine falcons, giving us an intimate look at how a species behaves as it recovers, grows, and eventually reaches stasis with its environment. Without bird banding, we could not track the success of our cliff recovery program, know the history of any given site from year to year, or track the ebb and flow between urban and cliff-nesting populations. We would not know that female falcons tend to stay within 200 miles of their natal nests, that males tend to stay within 70 miles of their natal nest, and that Zeus, the male at Woodman Tower in Nebraska, was a real outlier (Zeus was released in Rochester, New York: a straight-line distance of 945 miles). The leg bands we use do not harm birds or adversely affect their survival rates.

Falcon Tom from Xcel Sherco, 2019

Falcons Tom and Waylon from Xcel Energy’s Sherco plant, 2019

Bird banding has a long and storied history. In 254 BC, Quintus Fabius Pictor recorded the use of birds as message carriers by the Romans. Pliny noted the use of birds as messengers in his Natural History, completed in 77 AD, and Marco Polo, writing on falconry in Asia between 1275 and 1295, stated: “Each bird belonging to the sovereign and the Barons has a tablet of silver on its feet, with its name and that of the owner inscribed so that wherever caught it can be returned to him.

As in Asia, royal falconers in Europe began banding so they could identify and recapture escaped or stolen birds. Recorded recaptures include a falcon owned by Henry IV, which escaped at Fontainebleau and was recovered in Malta, 1,350 miles away, and a Canary falcon owned by the Duke of Lerma, which flew from Anadalusia to the island of Teneriffe, a distance of 750 miles. At some point, royalty began banding other birds on their royal forests and hunting land, including blue birds, herons, ducks, buzzards, swifts, and storks. Methods included collars, leg rings, and plates.

Although many sovereigns and scholars were enthusiastic about marking birds, systematic bird banding as a means of studying bird populations didn’t begin in Europe until 1899, when a Danish schoolteacher named Hans Christian Mortensen began putting aluminum rings on starlings, storks, ducks, and larger birds of prey, inscribing them with his name and address in the hope they would be returned. Although the practice was somewhat controversial, Mortensen received so many interesting returns that others quickly followed. By 1909, ornithologists and enthusiasts were banding birds for study in East Prussia, Ireland, England, Hungary, and France.

James Audubon is widely acknowledged as the first bird bander in the Americas, but it was ornithologist Leon J. Cole who introduced the concept of scientific, systematic bird banding. Early bird banding efforts were personal and haphazard: individuals and groups used their own private markers, IDs, and tagging methods. As Harold Wood reports in A History of Bird Banding: “A Duck Hawk (Peregrine falcon) was found at Cape Canaveral, near Palm Beach, Florida, December 10, 1888, with a tin cap-box attached to its neck by a wire and bearing a message within dated October 10, 1888.” An enthusiast had trapped the Peregrine and released it from the Frying Pan Shoals Lightship off Cape Fear, slightly less than 200 miles from the place where it was found. A more dramatic example was found on a mallard duck shot in North Carolina in January 1910, which read “Have Faith in God! Write Jack Miner, Kingsville, Ont.” Standardized tags had yet to be developed.

Cole and other bird banders recognized the importance of organizing to better share data and compare practices. In November 1908, Cole presented a paper titled “The Tagging of Wild Birds as a Means of Studying their Movements” to the American Ornithologists Union. In December 1909, the AOU organized the American Bird Banding Association, which consisted of President Cole and 34 charter members. The group researched banding methods in six different European organizations, eventually settling on the style of band recommended by Country Life of London. The group distributed 4,173 bands to 44 persons, who used 800 of them bands on 73 species of birds. Modern bird banding – the work we continue today – had begun.

A few milestones
  • In the early 1900s, concern over declining numbers of some birds, including waterfowl and passenger pigeons, led to an international agreement to manage migratory birds. The Migratory Bird Convention was signed by Canada and the United States in 1916. Regrettably, these protections are being rolled back.
  • 1920: Under the leadership of Fredrick Lincoln, the US Bureau of Biological Survey takes on overseeing the Migratory Bird Convention and coordinating banding activities in North America. The Bird Banding Laboratory (USA) and the Canadian Bird Banding Office manage permits, supply bands and keep records. Data on all birds banded in North America is kept in Washington, D.C. Between 1920 and 1946, Lincoln organized the banding office, developed numbering schemes and record keeping procedures, recruited banders, established standards, fostered international cooperation, and promoted banding as a tool in scientific research and management.
  • 1936: Mexico joins the Migratory Bird Convention.
  • 2002: The 100th year of scientific bird banding is celebrated. Some species, like the passenger pigeon, are gone forever. But others, like the bald eagle and peregrine falcon, are well on their way to recovery after nearly becoming extinct in the latter half of the 20th century.
  • 2011: More than 64 million birds have been banded in the United States and Canada, according to records received by the BBL. About 3.5 million of these bands have been recovered and reported back. On average, about 1.2 million birds are banded every year.

Things that helped me research and learn a little more about bird banding:

In addition to Cole and Audubon, other important names in early American bird banding include Dr. Paul Bartsch, who began tagging black-crowned night herons in 1902, P. A. Taverner, who furnished 200 hand-made aluminum bands to his correspondents, Jack Miner, who began banding in 1909 and tagged his 20,000 goose in 1939, and Dr. John B Watson, who conducted the first American homing experiment, also in 1909.