Hans Christian Cornelius Mortensen, a teacher from Viborg, Denmark, was the first person in the world to systematically ring birds. He started in 1899, ringing 165 young Starlings with numbered and addressed rings hoping that some of the birds would be found and the rings returned with information about finding place and date. The experiment was a success and already one year later the first results were published. The method attracted much attention abroad and in the following years many countries started to ring birds and established ringing centres.
In 2011, over 1 million birds were ringed in the UK in 2011 and 160,000 recaptured and 20,000 were recovered according to the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO).
Fancy getting in on the action? Read on…
How does it work?
First of all you need to catch a bird to do it. There are several techniques that are used, depending on the age of the bird that is being ringed (rung?). If the aim is to ring chicks, which is the easiest way to do it, you can use nestboxes. The important thing with ringing young chicks is that the ring needs to be big enough to allow for growth, as well as that the parents of the chicks won’t then desert their nests. To ring adults mist nests are easiest to use, which are very thin nests that are hiding among bushes in the hope that the birds don’t see it. Other netting methods include bait netting and cannon netting.
Once you have the bird, you then add a ring. There are often two rings added – an aluminium ring (silver) with a unique ID number, and the other is a coloured ring, also of a lightweight material. Originally only the silver ring was used but as it’s difficult to read the number from afar a colour system was introduced as well, and doesn’t require re-capture. Different birds have the rings attached to different body parts – most have them around their necks but sometimes geese are given rings around their necks, and some birds get tagged on their wings.
Most ringing is done by biologists, and as part of their studies other data is recorded like age (often using wing development as an indicator), wingspan is measured, weight is recorded (by putting them in a bag) and others depending on the nature of the study. When the time comes to release the animals, they are taken back to where they were captured and set free to fly away.
The data is then passed on to international organisations like the British Trust for Ornithology that collate information from all around the world which could eventually be extremely useful for ecological monitoring. Equally, if someone finds a bird with a tag, it is very much encourage to report it these bodies.
Sometimes people will go to great lengths to ring birds – as seen here on Springwatch in 2010 where they filmed the ringing of peregrines in the Avon Gorge in Bristol.
How can I participate?
To be become qualified to ring birds you need to find a trainer and join them regularly. There are various levels of qualification, and depending on how frequently you are able to go ringing. Often, because ringing goes in seasons, it will take several years to get a permit to go ringing with remote supervision from a trainer, and even longer to become qualified to organise your own ringing trips.
This might seem a long line to take, but it is important that the birds are handled with proper care, as it is done in the interest of the birds, and also for your own safety – Eric Hosking, a brilliant wildlife photographer, lost one of his eyes when in close proximity to tawny owls.
So what has science learnt from ringing practices? Most of the data is related to routes and destinations of migratory birds – how far south they can go, like the cuckoo travelling to the Congo, or that the Artic tern can travel as far Australia from the UK in a few months. The oldest known bird in the world, a manx shearwater which is now 55 years old, is as a result of ringing. A final example is the coot, a rather unremarkable bird at times, but a ringed individual was found dead in Finland, which was only the second-ever coot to travel that far on record.
Not everyone agrees with bird ringing, and some people think it does more harm than good. What about you?