ABOUT BIRD RESEARCH
The next time you see a bird, ask yourself these questions:
- How many of that type of bird are there?
- Where does it live?
- Does it mate for life?
- How old is it and how long might it live?
- How many eggs will it lay in its life? (If it is a female)
- Does it fly far away from here?
- Where will it go?
- Where does it feed?
The answers to these questions are important to conserve our native birds, and the places where they live. Researchers who look for these answers often need to be able to recognise individual birds or groups of birds. One way is to attach bands or tags to the birds. Researchers who use bands to study birds are called "banders".
The Australian Bird and Bat Banding Scheme (ABBBS) helps this research by supplying numbered metal bands to banders. These bands are usually fitted around the bird's lower leg (or tarsus). Each band is stamped with a different number and the ABBBS address. Since the banding scheme was started, over 2.6 million birds and bats have been banded and about 140,000 of these have been found again.
The role of the ABBBS is to:
- Help with training banders to use bands properly
- Advise on how best to collect and use banding information
- Store information on what birds have been banded
- Let banders know where and when their bands have been found
- Arrange the design and manufacture of bands
- Supply bands and other equipment to banders
ABSA works very closely with the ABBBS, especially in the areas of bander training, and the dissemination of information, research findings and techniques through ABSA publications.
Banders are carefully trained how to catch, handle and band birds without injuring them. Training usually takes two years and a great deal of practice. There are now about 800 banders around Australia and another 250 in training. They include university students and teachers, wildlife scientists, wildlife managers, and a great many people who study birds as a hobby.
Banding and Recoveries
Like all research, a banding project starts with a question the bander wants to answer. Both ABSA and the ABBBS can help banders decide how to collect the right information to answer their question.
Bands are sent to banders and their work begins. As time goes by, banders send the ABBBS information about where, when and what types of birds their bands were put on. That information is recorded on computer. If one of those birds is caught again, the minimum distance travelled can be calculated the (of course, the bird may have travelled much further before being re-captured). The ABBBS then sends a letter to both the bander and the finder, telling them of the bird's history.
Most parts of Australia are sparsely populated, so in most cases banders recapture birds which they themselves have banded. But sometimes banders catch a bird with somebody else's band on it, and occasionally, members of the public discover bands on injured or dead birds. When these recoveries are reported to the ABBBS, the information is passed on to the bander who banded the bird.
Good band design means making sure that bands do not injure birds or change the way they live, even after many years. A band must be the right size and shape and must be tough enough to outlast its wearer without causing injury. A band for a Willy Wagtail needs to last only about 15 years while a band on a Wandering Albatross might have to survive more than 60 years of constant dunking in seawater!
Band size is very important - too loose and the band might slip down over the foot of the bird, but too tight and it could cut into the bird's leg.
Band shape is also important for some species. Pelicans have legs that are egg-shaped and Pelican bands must be shaped that way too so that they do not rub and cause injuries. Some Kingfishers have very short legs, so narrow bands are needed for them. Penguins' legs are so short that bands cannot safely be used at all. Instead, flat metal tags are placed around their flippers.
In time, even metal bands can wear out. How quickly depends on the habits of the bird, where it lives and what the band is made of. Some of the earliest bands used on seabirds were made of copper but they eroded too quickly and had to be replaced. The metals now used in bands are long-lasting and hard-wearing. Small sized bands are mostly made from pure aluminium or an aluminium alloy. Larger bands are usually made from stainless steel.
Other Marking Techniques
Sometimes banders can collect enough information without re-trapping birds to read their numbers. There are several ways to do this.
Colour bands: Several coloured plastic bands can be put on the legs of birds. The combination of colours can be seen at a distance to identify individual birds.
Leg flags: These are plastic leg bands with a coloured flap which is much easier to see than a coloured band by itself. Leg flags are commonly used on migratory wading birds to show the area where they were banded rather than to identify individuals.
Colour dye: Dying plumage is used only for short-term studies because dye lasts only until the birds moult their feathers (one year at most).
Readable bands: Metal or plastic bands with large numbers have been very successfully used on several types of birds such as Silver Gulls, and Peregrine Falcons. Banders often have to use binoculars to read the bands.
Wing tags: These are patches of coloured fabric and usually have a number on them. They are attached to the wing and have been used successfully on egrets, kookaburras and cockatoos.
Radio tracking: Many researchers have attached small (1-2 grams) radio transmitters to birds to track them as they go about their lives. The tiny batteries last only a few weeks.
Satellite tracking: More powerful (and heavier) transmitters can be tracked by satellites and have been used on larger birds like albatrosses, geese and cranes. As transmitters and batteries become smaller, it may become possible to track smaller birds by satellite.
Passive induction transponders (PITs): These are small devices that can be injected under the skin. A special scanner can read the PIT's number when it is close by. PITs are commonly used to identify pets and livestock and have been used in the Antarctic to study Penguins.
Smart tags/Geolocators: These can collect and store information such as temperature, air pressure and light intensity. When the tag is recovered, its information can be unloaded and analysed. Smart tags are already being used to study tuna and will soon be in use on Albatrosses.
More recently, these have been used to record sunrise and sundown times, from which an approximate (to within 100km) location can be calculated. Called 'Geolocators', these were used to confirm the non-stop flight of Bar-tailed Godwits from Alaska to New Zealand in 2010/11.
Publication of Research Findings
Of course it is no use finding all sorts of information about birds if that information is not reliably communicated to other people. The results of research are said to be in the "public domain" when they are published in a recognised scientific journal. Before publication, articles are subjected to a process of peer review, where the results, methods and analysis are checked by someone already familiar with this type of research. That way, spurious, unreliable, unverifiable and sloppy data can be prevented from contaminating the knowledge base. Readers, and other researchers, know that a certain standard has been maintained throughout the research project, and hence can place more reliance on the findings.
ABSA publishes one such refereed journal, Corella.
ABSA also encourages and assists those researchers who are unfamiliar with this process to put pen to paper and get their results published.
Banding in Other Countries
Many other countries also have banding schemes and their bands are occasionally found on birds in Australia. The ABBBS sends information about these recoveries to the foreign banding schemes, which in turn, pass the information on to the people who band the birds. Likewise, overseas schemes send the ABBBS information about Australian bands they have recovered. Among these countries are:
- New Zealand
- South Africa
- Great Britain
What To Do if you Find a Band
If you find a bird with a band, wing-tag or some other marking, the ABBBS would like to hear about it. Either write to, or telephone the ABBBS (see below), with the following information:
- The band number
- Where you found the band
- When you found the band (date)
- What you think happened to the bird
- Where the bird is now
- Where the band is now
- Notes about any other marks on the bird
As well, if the bird is dead, we would like you, if possible, to
- Take the band off
- Gently straighten it as much as you can
- Stick it to some cardboard
- Write the band number on the cardboard
- Write whether you have telephoned the ABBBS about this band
- Send the band to the ABBBS
The ABBBS will be very glad to hear from you and will send you a letter telling you when and where the bird was banded.
The Australian Bird and Bat Banding Scheme (ABBBS)
GPO Box 8
Telephone: +61 2 6274 2407
- Fax: +61 2 6274 2455
email: abbbs AT environment DOT gov DOT au
Banding can be a valuable tool to use with bats too. Australia has about 70 species, ranging in size from tiny forest bats weighing only 2 or 3 grams, up to fruit bats which can weigh as much as a kilogram.
Bats are mostly banded on their forearms instead of on their legs. Nearly 103,000 have been banded in Australia since the 1950s. Many of these were tree-dwelling forest bats, and banding research has shown that they move only a few kilometres.
This document largely follows a pamphlett published by the ABBBS, and we acknowledge and thank the ABBBS for permission to use it.