Bird banding is a method of tracking and identifying birds that involves placing small, ring-like bands of plastic or metal to on birds’ legs. Each band has a number on it, which can be used to identify the bird in the wild. The data gathered from sightings of banded birds helps ornithologists to study birds’ migration routes, lifespans, and nesting habits.
John James Audubon was the first person to conduct banding experiments in North America. In the early 1800s, while in the midst of studying and painting North American birds, Audubon banded several young Eastern Phoebes at their nesting site near Philadelphia. The next year, he noticed that the previous year’s phoebes—easily distinguished by their banded legs—had returned to the same nesting site. Without the bands, it might have seemed as though they were just another flock of phoebes arriving in the area to nest: The presence of the bands, however, revealed the species’ nesting site fidelity and provided a glimpse into the birds’ lives.
Throughout the early 1900s banding was standardized and spread around the globe as a way to track birds. Today in the U.S. and Canada, banding is administered by the Bird Banding Lab, which issues bands and permits to researchers. Banding began with simple metal bands with small engraved codes to, but now color bands are often added with larger codes that can be read with spotting scopes, binoculars, or cameras. The American Oystercatcher Working Group—which is made up of researchers and managers who work with oystercatchers across their U.S. and Mexican range—places these “field-readable” bands on oystercatchers.
These colorful bands have two- and three-character codes that uniquely identifies each banded oystercatcher to observers. The metal band that every oystercatcher wears on its lower leg and color bands that they wear on their upper legs are applied with a special pair of pliers. Over 4,000 oystercatchers have been banded since 1999, allowing long-term studies of their survival, migrations, and survivorship. The chicks above, CRJ and CRH, were banded in 2014. In the fall they migrated to Georgia and Florida respectively. Where they go and what they do will be recorded by biologists and members of the public who spot their bands and read the codes.
Anyone can look for banded birds and contribute to scientific knowledge about them. If you see an oystercatcher, take a look at its legs. If you find bands, note the date and location where you saw the bird and write down the color of the bands, what code if any was on the them, and the location of the bands on the bird’s legs. Then, visit the American Oystercatcher Working Group online to report the band and find out where your bird came from!