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Bird Ringing for Science and Conservation

Methods of bird ringing

Many birds are ringed as chicks in nests but fully-grown birds have to be caught using a variety of nets and traps. Whatever the catching method, ringers are carefully trained to ensure the safety of the birds they ring. Small birds are often caught in fine mist-nets. Bigger birds, such as ducks, are often caught in “walk-in” or baited cage traps. After removal from a net or a trap, birds are usually placed in soft cotton bags or in special holding boxes where they remain quiet and dry until they can be identified, ringed, examined and released.

Special rings and various other marks can be used to identify birds at a distance without needing to cat ch them again. Many birds wear colour rings with numbers that can be easily read through a telescope. Waterbirds can be marked with colour neck bands, and larger birds marked with wing tags, each individually identified by numbers or letters.


Photo © Viborg Stiftsmuseum
Bird ringing for scientific purposes started in Denmark in 1889, when H. Chr. C. Mortensen released Starlings that were fitted with metal rings engraved with successive numbers and a return address. Since those pioneer times, bird ringing quickly evolved into a standard research technique used in all parts of the World.  

A wide variety of ring sizes is used to mark different species, depending on the dimension and structure of the leg and the habitats the birds live in. The weight increase to the bird from the ring can be roughly compared to that of a wristwatch
for a human.
Photo © Geert Brodvad
Photo © Joël Krebs
Photo © Matthias Kestenholz
Many birds like this Tawny Owl are
ringed as chicks in nests.
A row of mist-nets at the bird ringing site Col de Bretolet in the Swiss Alps. By co-ordinating the activities of ringing stations throughout Europe and Africa, EURING is helping to unravel the mysteries of bird migration.
Photo © Matthias Kestenholz
Waterbirds like ducks are often caught in baited cage traps.
Photo © Kurt Pulfer
Photo © Kurt Pulfer
Mist-nets are made of very thin nylon threads
and are cheap and safe for catching small birds,
such as this male Lesser Redpoll.
An individually numbered ring is closed around
the leg of a Hawfinch using specially produced
ringing pliers.
Photo © Kurt Pulfer
Photo © Kurt Pulfer
Close scrutiny of the details of plumage may
allow the ringer to identify the age and sex
of the bird in the hand.
Measuring a particular primary feather gives
a good indication of overall size of
an individual bird.

Satellite tracking

One method that has added a new dimension to avian research in recent years is satellite tracking. Tiny transmitters, usually carried in harnesses strapped to the birds’ bodies, are linked to satellites. Each harness is custom-designed for each species and manually adjusted for each bird for maximum comfort of fit. The system enables researchers and conservationists to track individual birds continuously.

The results achieved by satellite tracking are ground-breaking. For the first time, the whole spatio-temporal pattern of successful migrations can be captured at a level of detail far exceeding that provided by ringing. Satellite tracking can also help discover unknown breeding, moulting or wintering areas of endangered species or causes of massive losses. When combined with other devices, such as thermometers or miniature cameras, additional information of the bird’s behaviour may be transmitted to the satellite.

However, satellite tracking will never replace bird ringing. The reasons for this are simple: transmitters are relatively expensive, a large amount of technical equipment is necessary, and the technique is limited to larger species (though transmitters now weigh as little as 10 g).

EURING will incorporate data from satellite tracking into its database in order to ensure that these extremely valuable data are stored in perpetuity.

Photos © & Ingar Jostein Oien

The Lesser White-fronted Goose is at present one of Europe‘s most endangered bird species.
The most important single threat throughout it’s range is the high mortality due to hunting and poaching.
The core problem was, and partly still is, that the staging and wintering grounds for the species are
virtually unknown. To locate them, a few individuals from the Fennoscandian population were equipped
with satellite transmitters. They revealed a loop migration from the Norwegian breeding sites to the
moulting area in arctic Siberia, and the winter quarters in Greece.




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Last updated 27.01.2012
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