Have we gone overboard on banding birds ?
By Staci-lee Sherwood
I remember back when I was a kid it was a rare sighting to see a bird banded or a wolf wearing a radio collar. Nowadays these are more common sightings but how much good does this actually do? Keep in mind that when a bird is banded several people are involved in the process. Most of the time these people are paid and often it’s not just one group of people but a variety from different non profits or universities.
Before a bird is banded: someone has to trap the bird, someone has to band the bird, most times a medical check is performed, someone has to make the bands, another has to record the number and color of the band and lastly someone has to keep track of sightings once the bird is released. Of course reports are done as well. You can see how this seemingly simple program involves many people over long periods of time and rarely does anyone work for free. For any nonprofits involved they use these programs as a fundraising tool, so money is always involved in the process. As we have seen many times whenever money is involved the truth can often be tainted.
When are enough bands enough?
The idea to band birds started with the hope of learning migratory routes and habits as a way to aid conservation. We can’t save a species if we don’t even know where they live, eat and breed. Over the years it has morphed into a money maker for many seeking funding. As is often the case, especially with conservation, great ideas often turn into a horror when taken to excess. Banding birds is one of those ideas that looks to have mushroomed out of control and all one needs to do is look at the photos of birds with multiple bands sometimes completely covering both legs.
Snowy Plover chicks with 4 bands, both legs are banded before they can even fly.
It started out as a good thing
Banding birds in the US started in 1902 by Dr.Paul Bartsch who worked at The Smithsonian Institution at the time. Bartsch knew there were many unanswered questions that banding birds might answer, such as migratory routes. Over the years millions of birds, ducks and geese have been banded. While I’m not disputing that valid scientific data has been collected it’s clear this has morphed out of control. There are many groups now involved with banding birds and all of them reap some financial gain from this so to say this is purely about conservation would be disingenuous.
According to The Bird Banding Laboratory they have been keeping bird banding records since 1920. Their records show that between 1960 - 2016 there were over 4 million re-sighting of banded birds, out of approximately 70 + million banding records . Those re-sighting numbers are impressive but only represent about a 6%. What happened to the other 94% of banded birds? How do we really know if the colored bands made it easier for hunters to spot and shoot them? How do we know if the bands didn’t get stuck on a branch making flight impossible or if the weight of all these bands hindered their flight? Many birds only have bands on 1 leg or often have a different number of bands on each leg. This means weight distribution is not even and despite the bands being tiny every little bit of weight matters. Ask any pilot about weight distribution and they will tell you that even the smallest variation changes how the plane flies. Can we really assume the same does not hold true for birds?
Click here for more information about banding programs
All those positive reports about banding birds come from those groups involved with banding. Human nature shows us that when someone has something to gain they focus on the positive often ignoring or denying the negative. While 1 band or 1 group may reap needed scientific data can we really believe that more bands and more groups is better? Sometimes less really is better. You know what the say about the road to Hell being paved with good intentions, perhaps this is an example of that.
This endangered Florida Scrub Jay has 3 bands all on one leg.
This Red-shouldered hawk has a band on each leg .
Types of Bird Bands used
Several different types of bands are used on different bird species. Bands can be metal or plastic, with an identification number of each band etched onto them. Some bands are brightly colored and can be read at a distance without disturbing the birds. More detailed bands may have informational codes that identify where and when the bird was first banded. Some countries and banding organizations use bands that have the address of the relevant conservation organization right on the band.
I have spotted and photographed a few banded birds over the years. After looking up who might have banded the bird, based on color and material used, I sent the photos with date and location to that group. They sent back the data on those birds and logged in the data I provided. After noticing how more and more birds were banded and in particular having several bands, I started to wonder how this might affect them. The fact that little information about any negative effects on banded birds is out there for public review led me to question why we have so many bands and is this really just about conservation.
A Piping Plover I spotted with a band.
Animals can’t speak for themselves. We must be willing to question everything, even when something seems positive and sublime.
Bands commonly used on birds include:
Butt-End Bands: These bands clamp closed with blunt ends. This is the most common type of band and is suitable for most bird species, including passerines, ducks, and hummingbirds.
Lock-On Bands: These bands have small flanges that will be bent over one another when the band is affixed to the bird's leg so it cannot be pried open. This type of band is most commonly used on small and medium-sized birds of prey, such as kestrels or small hawks, that may work to bend or pry a ring off.
Rivet Bands: These bands are riveted closed and are impossible to pry open. These strong bands are typically placed on large birds of prey such as eagles, whose powerful bills may remove or destroy less secure bands.
If you see a banded bird please take a photo of the bird and a close up photo of the band(s). Look up what group would have banded this bird based on band color.
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Here is some food for thought from 1982. It’s always a good thing to question what is being done. Imagine yourself as a bird and ask yourself does the benefit outweigh any negative impact?
Always ask questions even when something seems like a good idea. You never know if you’re question could be the one to change things for the better.