Bird Banding and Citizen Science

Bird banding helps scientists understand behavior like bird migration. Learn about the process and how to report a banded bird.

It’s early on a crisp autumn day. As I walk through the woods, I can’t help but feel like an excited little kid waiting to open my birthday presents. This part of my job never gets old: checking the bird nets around the Black Swamp Bird Observatory in Ohio. I’m the education director here, and part of my job is to capture and band thousands of birds each year.

Have you ever been watching the birds at your feeder when something bright and shiny caught your eye? Bird banding is one of the oldest techniques used to gather data about birds. It’s amazing what wonders a little weightless leg band can do to help researchers gather data.

I find bird banding exciting because there are always surprises. During last year’s spring migration, I remember showing a recaptured white-crowned sparrow to a group of young students. They found it hard to believe that I’d caught that same bird just five days earlier. In that short time, it grew from just 29 grams to 34 grams. It was a real-life lesson on how important stopover habitats are to birds needing to fuel up during migration.

Bird Banding Basics

Bird bandingSherry Leffert
Banding Atlantic Puffins and other birds helps scientists gather data. Sherry Leffert

Here’s how banding works.

  • First, songbirds are captured using something called a fine mist net, which I like to think of as a cross between a volleyball net and a hairnet. Birds fly into it and are temporarily restrained in a safe hammock.
  • Trained researchers and volunteers delicately remove the birds from the nets and take them to the nearby banding station for processing. Here the birds are identified by species and then banded, aged, sexed, weighed, measured and assessed for body condition.
  • Finally, they are released, unharmed, back into the wild sporting shiny new bracelets with identification numbers on them.

The United States Geological Survey administers bird banding. In addition to the standard band, researchers sometimes place colored bands or tags on a bird’s leg, neck or wing. These markers are especially helpful in behavioral studies, or when birds need to be identified in the field.

With advancements in technology, it’s now possible to place GPS loggers on some species. These new tools are helping researchers decipher all kinds of data, including the often tricky logistics of bird migration. Researchers at the Center for Conservation Biology recently documented one ambitious whimbrel’s 3,200-mile trek from the Delmarva Peninsula of the mid-Atlantic coast to the Mackenzie River in far northwest Canada—all in just 146 hours.

Citizen Science: Get Involved With Bird Banding and Beyond

  • Report a Banded Bird: Bird bands are small and can be nearly impossible to read unless the bird is in the hand. As a result, many reported bird band encounters come only after the birds have met unfortunate ends, often involving a window or an outdoor cat. Researchers do recapture a small percentage of the birds they band, but they also rely a lot on citizen scientists to report banded birds. Report band numbers online by clicking here or by calling 1-800-327-BAND.
  • Attend a Banding Demo: You have to have a permit to actually band birds, but you can attend bird banding demonstrations in your area. This will help you learn what to look for and how these programs are run.
  • Join other Citizen Scientists: Keeping track of birds and bird migration is a full-time job for many and a lifelong hobby for others. Together, researchers and devoted amateurs share an enthusiasm for nature’s winged wonders. Consider a bit of research your duty as a backyard birdwatcher. Look for a volunteer opportunity near you, or sign up for a citizen science activity.
  • Project FeederWatch examines feeder use from November to April. Project NestWatch, which asks participants to document the success of bird nests. It’s a good hands-on project, with protocols to ensure minimal disturbance of nests.
  • The eBird project is the most flexible citizen science option. After creating an online account, you simply enter your bird sightings, including species, number of birds, location and time observed.
  • The longest-running project of this kind is the Christmas Bird Count, administered by the National Audubon Society and Bird Studies Canada. Begun in 1900 as an alternative to the traditional Christmas morning bird hunt, it’s an ideal group activity. Look for one in your area, or start your own.

Ken Keffer lives in northwest Ohio. He has banded all types of birds, ranging from green-tailed towhees to brown pelicans, black-and-white warblers and white-crowned sparrows. 

Ken Keffer
Ken Keffer has a degree in wildlife biology and is an award-winning environmental educator and author. His career has been spent highlighting the importance of nature and encouraging people to explore the outdoors. Ken is the current president of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. He recently put down roots in Bloomington, Indiana, where he and his wife Heather Ray own a backyard bird feeding nature shop.