Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Bird Banding
Nature Bulletin No. 470-A   November 11, 1972
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

The migration of birds, southward in autumn and northward in spring, has excited the wonder of man since the dawn of history. Observations on their comings and goings were recorded repeatedly in the Old Testament and by the ancient Greeks. Some curious beliefs were common, such as the idea that hummingbirds crossed the Mediterranean by riding on the backs of wild geese.

One of the marvels of nature is the unfailing exactness with which birds follow established routes year after year, generation after generation; the ability of many kinds to find their way over trackless seas without landmarks to guide them; and the enormous distances traveled by some species, apparently without stopping. These travels, once a mystery, and many other questions about the life histories of birds, are being gradually solved by numbered bands placed upon their legs, because individual birds may be identified wherever found -- often many years later.

The first banded bird was a great gray heron which, several years after a silver ring had been placed on its leg in Turkey, was recaptured in Germany in 1710. Audubon, in 1803, attached silver rings to the legs of a brood of young phoebes near his home in eastern Pennsylvania and, the following spring, found two of them nesting in that neighborhood. Beginning in 1899, a Danish schoolmaster named Mortensen pioneered the use of numbered bands on storks, herons, teals, starlings and birds of prey -- demonstrating that it was a valuable scientific tool.

Bird banding was begun in America by Dr. Leon J. Cole in 1902. By 1920 it had outgrown the resources of amateur banders and was taken over by the U. S. Biological Survey, now the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This bureau issues the permits to trap and band birds, which every qualified bander must have, and supplies the numbered bands. It maintains a central clearing house in its Patuxent station at Laurel, Maryland, for the records and exchange of banding information. The bands are aluminum and of twelve sizes: from those 1/16th inch in diameter, for hummingbirds, up to 7/8th inch diameter for our largest birds.

At present there are over 2300 banders in the United States, Canada and Mexico, including 30 in the Chicago region. Since 1920, at least one of every species of American bird has been banded and more than 50,000 of some a total of over 7-1/2 million. When a banded bird is reported as recaptured by a bander, or found dead, or shot by a hunter, the records at Patuxent show the species; its sex; often its age; when, where and by whom it was first banded; and other recaptures, if any. By the piling up and study of such information, the migration routes traveled by our common species have almost all been worked out, as well as the wanderings or local movements of those which, we now know, follow no definite path. Similarly, many other important facts of birdlife have been learned.

Most banding of songbirds and other non-game species is done as a hobby but, because most of them are protected against hunting, the percentages of "recovered" bands is quite small. These enthusiasts urge everyone to examine any bird found dead and, if it wears a band, carefully copy the band number which, with the exact place and date should be sent to the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington, D.C.

You will receive a thank-you letter with all details about the bird.

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