blackburnian warbler

Some of the mysteries of bird migration have been solved by banding birds. We now know that blackburnian warblers, like the one pictured with a band, who nest in our Northwoods in summer, winters in South America. Therefore, they need songbird refuges along their migratory routes to provide them with suitable habitat for resting and refueling.

This is the last in a three-part series, “Celebrating 100 years of Bird-banding.” Part 1 provided a general overview of why we band birds, Part 2 gave examples of the banding work my research team has done to study and help birds, and Part 3 focuses on a few examples of what others have learned from banding birds.

Famous ornithologist John James Audubon tied a silver thread or maybe a wire to the legs of nestling Eastern phoebes in 1803. He found that two of the birds returned to Pennsylvania the following spring where he had tagged them showing site fidelity — returning to the same place. This was one of the first times in history that such a tagging device had been used to study birds. Since that time, many tagging or banding studies have been done to study birds with fascinating and important results for bird conservation.

Banding helps identify a bird by its own uniquely numbered official light-weight metal band placed on its leg. No other banded bird has the same number, just like each car has its own unique license plate number. The numbered band makes the bird an individual — we know who it is, the physical condition it was in when banded, where it has been, how long it lived, or even how far it traveled since it was first captured. Sometimes color bands are used in unique combinations with an official numbered band to identify individuals with binoculars avoiding the need for and stress of recapturing them.

Much of our knowledge of bird life comes from bird banding studies. We can find out about a bird’s biology, ecology, life expectancy, breeding and wintering grounds, migration routes, migratory refueling sites, habitat use, and changes in population. Because of the tremendous amount of information gained through banding efforts worldwide, banding is regarded as a primary tool in avian studies and conservation work. Here are a few examples of what we have learned through bird banding, some of them provided by the United States Geological Service (USGS) Bird Banding Laboratory.

Some of the mysteries of bird migration have been solved from banding returns. Migration begins each spring when birds wintering in the southern United States, Latin America, or South America start a journey northward. Bulging with fat used for fuel, they fly to their nesting grounds in Canada and the northern United States stopping along the way to rest and refuel. Migration ends in late fall when migratory birds return to their southern wintering grounds. Migration flyways, habitats used, and the amazing distances that some birds travel have been constructed from banding records and by using tiny tracking devices called geolocators. These records include where birds were captured, banded, released, and recaptured along their migratory routes. Some examples:

• The Arctic tern, which can live up to 34 years, has the longest migration flight of any living species in the world. It makes an annual round-trip flight of about 43,000 miles from its wintering areas on islands near Antarctica to nesting areas in the Arctic Circle. After nesting, it then returns to Antarctica for the winter.

• The ruby-throated hummingbird, weighing about three grams, small enough to send up to 10 of them in the mail with a first-class stamp, begins its migratory flight south with up to 40 percent of its weight as fat. Using fat as fuel, it crosses the 500-mile expanse of the Gulf of Mexico in a 20-hour nonstop flight to its wintering area. Average heartbeat of a hummingbird in flight is about 1200 beats per minute and about 250 beats while resting!

• Migrating ducks can travel up to 1,000 miles in one day averaging nearly 40 mph. Geese fly up to 1,700 miles in 2 1/2 days, cruising at about 35 mph.

• The 12-gram blackpoll warbler that nests in western North America makes a most remarkable migration flight of up to 12,400 miles roundtrip each year. Some of them cross the entire North American continent before making a nonstop trans-ocean flight of up to four days to South America.

• The Bobolink, red-eyed vireo, and red knot travel 5,000, 7,500, and 18,000 miles round trip during their migratory flights, respectively. Amazing, indeed!

“We use USGS Bird Banding Laboratory data and other tracking data to help determine where we should be investing throughout the Americas to protect breeding, migration and wintering grounds,” said Matthew Jeffery, deputy director for the National Audubon Society’s International Alliances Program. “One of the greatest success stories in the Caribbean has been the conservation of wild flamingos, and the laboratory’s data have been a critical piece of that effort.”

In 1950, there were about 5,000 wild flamingos in North America. Today there are more than 70,000. Conservation efforts include the creation of Inagua National Park in the Bahamas, which protected the birds’ breeding grounds. The laboratory’s data show that wild flamingos are living longer, a sign that management actions are working. The oldest known wild flamingo, at 49 years old, was identified through banding records. USGS data have also helped identify flamingo migration stops and wintering grounds that might warrant conservation.

Bird banding records played a critical role in identifying the devastating effects of the pesticide DDT on some wild birds. The lab’s research uncovered a decline in some falcon species and bald eagles, sparking scientists at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and elsewhere to investigate. The pesticide was found at extremely high concentrations in the birds’ bodies and the prey they ate. DDT alters the way certain birds metabolize calcium, resulting in thin eggshells that crack or break under the weight of an incubating bird, causing reproductive failure. This research helped lead to the ban of DDT in the United States more than 40 years ago.

“Banding data have also been central to establishing hunting regulations for many migratory game birds,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Pam Garrettson. Wood ducks are a good example. These beautiful waterfowl are hard to detect in aerial surveys because they live in forested areas and often can’t be seen from above. Habitat loss and overexploitation led to their decline in the late 1800s. They were federally protected from hunting between 1918 and 1940, and restrictions remained relatively conservative as their populations recovered and increased. By using USGS Bird Banding Laboratory data, we were able to understand more about wood duck survival and the impacts of hunting on northern- and southern-breeding birds. This helped us better predict whether they could tolerate additional harvest before we considered additional bag limit increases,” Garrettson said.

These are only a few examples of how scientists used banding data to increase knowledge, conservation, and management of birds. Citizen scientists, who hold Master or Sub-permittee Bird Banding permits, have also helped contribute and compile immense amounts of data that make the Bird Banding Laboratory’s records so valuable. You, too, can help by reporting any banded birds you find; here is how you can do it.

Anyone finding a dead or live banded bird should report the band number and where, when and how the bird was found. Do not remove bands from live birds — release the birds with their bands intact. Band reports must be submitted through the mobile-friendly website,

Certificates of Appreciation will be issued electronically, if requested, to those reporting bands via email detailing the history of the banded bird. It will also send the bander information on how, where, and when the bird was found.

If you would like to see a 2 1/2 minute video on our Nature Education Center bird banding operation, it can be viewed on YouTube at this link:

The private Nature Education Center in Fifield operated by Tom and Mary Lou Nicholls is open seasonally by appointment only. Nicholls can be reached at