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EURING Newsletter - Volume 2, December 1998


After the situation of ringing in South Africa described by Terry Oatley in the first isse, here a new and very interesting contribution comes from the United States and Canada. In this huge geographical area bird ringing is fully co-ordinated between the two countries and actively used for bird population management and conservation. Lucie Metras (coordinator of the Canadian Bird Banding Program) and John Tautin (Chief of the US Bird Banding Laboratory) report here on the history and fast developments of bird banding in North America, offering interesting and original experiences in both the organisation of field work and data management.


By John Tautin(1) and Lucie Métras(2)



John James Audubon and Ernest Thompson Seton are acknowledged as the first banders in North America, even though they did not actually use bands. Audubon tied silver threads around the legs of nestling Eastern Phoebes Sayornis phoebe in Pennsylvania in 1803 and was fortunate to recapture two of the nestlings the following spring. In Canada, Seton marked several Snow Buntings Plectrophenax nivalis with printer’s ink in 1882 in Manitoba.

During the early years of the North American bird banding program, the daunting challenges of geography and a poor distribution of banders relative to bird populations limited the early studies of marked birds. These challenges were gradually overcome by several factors. The two countries’ mutual interest in the conservation of shared populations of migratory bird species was formalized with the signing of the 1916 Convention between the United States and Canada for the Protection of Migratory Birds and the establishment of the uniform, jointly administered banding program in early 1920s.

Today, the Bird Banding Laboratory (BBL), center for the American banding activities and part of the US Geological Survey and the Bird Banding Office (BBO), responsible for coordinating the banding efforts in Canada, and part of the Canadian Wildlife Service, jointly administer the North American bird banding program. They have co-operatively developed similar functions and policies and use the same bands, reporting forms and data formats. Both offices issue permits and bands, coordinate the use of auxiliary markers such as neck collars and radio transmitters, and process and disseminate data. They currently support the work of 2,400 master permittees who are equivalent to the United Kingdom’s A class ringers. Some other 3,000 subpermittees band under their direction.

These banders are comprised of government conservation agencies, the academic community, professional and amateur ornithologists, non-governmental organizations, and businesses. They are involved in establishing waterfowl hunting regulations, monitoring bird populations, restoring endangered species, studying effects of environmental contaminants, studying bird behavior and ecology, educating people about bird conservation, and addressing issues of human health, safety and economy. Many banders are involved with national and international level conservation programs. Some examples include the North American Waterfowl Management Plan which concentrates on the restoration of waterfowl populations and their habitats in Canada, Mexico, and the US, the Partners in Flight program which emphasizes conservation of species which breed in Canada and US and winter in Latin America, and the Wetlands for the Americas program which focuses on the conservation of shorebirds.

As of 1997, 57 million banding and 3.1 million recovery records representing over 900 species and subspecies were on file at the banding offices. These totals are increasing by about 1.2 million bandings and 75 thousand encounters annually. Game species (primarily waterfowl) represent 25% of all bandings, but 75% of the recoveries. Although historically most banding projects have been small scale and local, in recent years, large-scale, cooperative projects have become more prominent in North America. This shift is due to the pressing need for more good, reliable data for all species of migrants and their habitats to ensure their conservation through their entire migratory range. Another noticeable change is that during the last ten years, the number of projects aimed at gaining more information on nongame birds, especially landbird, shorebird and seabird species, has increased due to the pressing need to identify the primary causes of population declines.

BBL and BBO recognize that improving the quality of scientific data collected without compromising the safety of the birds, and increasing the participation of banders in large-scale, long-term monitoring, conservation and research studies of North American bird populations are major challenges of today. Both offices are actively adapting operations to facilitate large-scale studies and make the banding programs more scientific and effective. The changes are also being accelerated by recent developments in the bird banding program:

In 1996, the North American Banding Council (NABC) was formed with the mission to promote sound and ethical banding principles and techniques in North America. NABC consists of appointed members from the major ornithological and banding organizations in North America. They represent the various groups of bird species being banded in North America such as passerines and near passerines, shorebirds, seabirds, waterfowl, raptors. NABC‘s main objectives are to prepare and disseminate standardized training and study materials, and to establish standards of competence and ethics through a certification process at three levels : Assistant, Permittee and Trainer. As early as 1998, a North American Bander’s Study Guide and a North American Syllabus for Trainers will be published, including some specialized materials for banding passerines and near passerines, raptors and hummingbirds. It is expected that 1998 will see its first group of NABC certified banders in North America. This certification will not be mandatory, but will be recognized by both banding offices (BBL and BBO) as an evidence of demonstrated competence when banding permits are requested. It is obvious that, in North America, bander training and certification must be encouraged to improve the quality of banding data and to increase the number of banders participating in large -scale, cooperative studies. Improving standards for banding will also enhance animal welfare.

In 1996, a toll-free telephone number was established in North America for people to more conveniently report band recoveries. The goal is to increase band reporting rates substantially from the 0.32 rate, cited in the Nichols et al. A brief postal address and the toll-free telephone number are now stamped on larger sized bands used mostly on waterfowl. A 1995 trial where equal (12,000) samples of mallards were banded with bands bearing the telephone number vs. bands bearing only an address indicated that the toll-free telephone number prompts significantly more band reports from the public. In 1996, toll-free bands were placed on most mallards banded, and the availability of the number was announced to the public. A record number of band recoveries was received in 1996, with nearly 60% coming via the telephone. In 1997, toll-free bands were made available for all waterfowl banding, as well for larger size bands used on nongame birds such as herons. Another record year for band recoveries is expected.

The plan is now to include the 1-800 telephone number on all band sizes (inside the band for small sizes) and to transit rapidly through these changes to stabilize the band reporting rate at some new, higher level that will be re-estimated in a few years. In addition to a larger volume of data, the toll-free number also produces better data, primarily because specific and more complete information can be obtained by the operator. Telephone reports are also more timely than written reports, thus reducing memory bias.

The September 1997, release of the report, “The North American Bird Banding Program: Into the 21st Century” is accelerating changes in the North American bird banding program. The report is the product of a distinguished panel of experts who were tasked with reviewing operations of BBL and the broader North American banding program. The report makes specific recommendations regarding policies, the now and future collection, the management and dissemination of banding data. An implementation team has been appointed, and several task forces are addressing specific recommendations from the report.

One of the key recommendations was to evaluate the collection of banding and recovery data with a view towards facilitating the increased use of contemporary analytical methods and to improve the quality of data collected from long term large scale studies. For example, hundreds of banders collect thousands of recapture, resighting and radio-location data for their specific studies. Approximately 56% of banders use auxiliary markers (e.g., neck collars, radio transmitters) in addition to numbered leg bands. At present, however, these data are not collected and stored at BBL, hence are not available for general use in meta-analyses. Questions about the universal value of recapture data exist, though, and exactly which and how much recapture data should be collected and stored is a continuing debate. It is predicted that in a near future, select sets of recapture records will likely be incorporated into our already massive database.

BBL and BBO are already making significant changes in the ways ongoing accepted data are collected, stored and disseminated to users. For example, the waterfowl banding and recovery database are now accessible on cd-rom. Banders are also being encouraged to submit banding data electronically, with 35% of all banding data presently being submitted on computer disk. Improved software and network links will be developed to accomplish the goal of receiving 100% of banding data electronically within few years. BBL is moving its database from a largely insular system designed for internal management of a hierarchical database on a minicomputer to a client-server based system managing a relational database making more use of personal computers. Raw data will be made more readily available to users, likely being served through Internet web sites along with explanatory information and interactive analytical software.

Lastly, BBL and BBO are promoting cooperation and partnership amongst government agencies, academic research programs and individuals and groups to assure the long-term success of the North American bird banding program. Moreover, because the conservation of migratory birds implies protection of the species and their habitat on the breeding grounds, migration routes and wintering grounds, international cooperation and partnerships throughout the entire Western Hemisphere must be sought or maintained. This would encourage the banding and stewardship of all birds in the Western Hemisphere; help to conserve habitat of importance for migratory species; better understand ecological interactions between endemic and migratory species; increase recoveries on their wintering or breeding grounds of birds banded in North America. It is therefore envisaged that BBL and BBO will initiate work in the near future with other Western Hemisphere governments to collectively implement, coordinated and integrated banding standards and protocols for this region of the world.

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