Bird banding: frequently asked questions

Question: Why should I report bands?

Answer: The success of the bird banding program relies on reports of bird bands from the public. Data from recovered bands are essential for many avian research and management projects. Bands identify individual birds so that we can better understand their movements including fidelity to breeding sites, migratory pathways and wintering areas. Data are used to estimate productivity, rates of survival and population dynamics of bird species. This provides important information for managing bird populations such including hunted species, endangered species and species status. By reporting bird bands you contribute directly to these conservation efforts.

Question: How many birds are banded each year?

Photo of Snowy Plover
Photo: © Jason Crotty, 2015.
Snowy Plover

Answer: On average 1.2 million birds are banded in Canada and the US each year. The most frequently banded bird in Canada is the Mallard Duck (Anas platyrhynchos) with about 2 million having been banded since the start of the program in the early 1900’s followed by the Canada Goose (Branta Canadensis) with about 800,000 banded. Within all of North America over 6 million Mallards and over 3 million Canada Geese have been banded. Of those over 1 million banded mallards just under 1 million Canada Geese have been recovered.

Question: Why do some birds also have a neck collar or other markers?

Answer: Researchers who study birds may also mark birds with additional markers to identify individual birds in the field without the need to recapture them. The various colour and alphanumeric code combinations can be read from a distance with binoculars or a spotting scope. Different types of markers are used depending on the type of bird, its behaviour and the information needed.

Photo of Canada Goose, Trumpeter swan, Red Knot, and Black Oystercatcher
Photo: © Jim Murray, Dave J. Brown, Edson Endrigo, and Monte Stinnett, 2015
Canada Goose, Trumpeter swan, Red Knot, and Black Oystercatcher.

Neck collars are often used to mark geese or swans. They are large enough that they can be easily read from a distance. Because geese aggregate on wintering grounds, it is possible to observe many colours in one area.

Wing markers are often used to mark vultures, eagles, swans, ravens, crows, and herons. They are generally visible while birds are in flight or perched.

Leg flags are often used to mark shorebirds. They stick out from the leg and often have a code which can be read from a distance with binoculars or a spotting scope. Because shorebird legs are often submerged, flags are placed on the upper leg.

Leg bands of various colours can also be used on all types of birds to identify them as individuals or belonging to a specific location, age or special project.

Dataloggers, transmitters and other electronic markers record specific location information that can be downloaded or transmitted directly to the researcher. These technologies help provide specific information about the movement and migration patterns of individual birds and are advancing our understanding of bird movements worldwide very rapidly.

Question: Do the collars (or other markers) hurt or hinder the bird?

Photo of Purple Martins
Photo : © Rick Ruppenthal, 2015.
Purple Martins

Answer: In their applications to study and mark birds, researchers must demonstrate that their project objectives and methods are justified. They may only mark birds once their proposal for scientific research has been approved and a permit issued by the Bird Banding Office. All projects involving markers other than colour bands must meet Canadian ethical and scientific standards and must be approved by an Animal Care Committee. When placing any type of markers on birds, researchers must follow strict protocols that have been tested and revised over the years to reduce any potential harm or hindrance to the birds.

Question: How far do birds migrate?

Answer: Many Canadian birds fly to the Southern United States for the winter, while some continue on to Central and South America, or even cross over to Russia, Europe, Asia or Africa. For specific species information and maps of migration routes, see the Canadian Atlas of Bird Banding.

Question: How long can a bird live? What are the oldest birds banded for a species?

Answer: The North American Bird Banding Program tracks and publishes longevity records for each North American bird species. You can find this list on the USGS Bird Banding Laboratory website. For example the longevity record for the Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) is 9 years, the Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) is 11 years 11 months, the American Robin (Turdus migratorius) is 13 years 11 months, the Mallard Duck is 27 years 7 months, the Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) is 28 years and the Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) is 30 years 4 months!

Question: How do I obtain a permit to band outside North America?

Answer: The Bird Banding Office can issue letters of agreement to Canadians to use North American federal bands on North American migrants outside of North America. Applicants must have all permits, licences and approvals required by the host country. For more information please contact the BBO and the host country.

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