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Reporting Bird Bands

By Gene Carver, Wildlife Biologist


As someone who enjoys the outdoors, you may have noticed metallic or brightly colored bands on the legs of some birds. If you are an avid birder or hunter, you may have actually gotten close enough to read the information written on these bands. The small print will include a number code and an address or a telephone number, or maybe just a cryptic message such as “AVISE BIRD BAND WASH DC.” These are all instructions for reporting information about the bird you have observed, caught, or harvested.

Banding of birds for identification was first recorded about 1595. One of King Henry IV’s Peregrine Falcons was found over 1,300 miles from where it was lost and was identified by its leg band. The first recorded banding of birds in North America was by John James Audubon in 1803. He tied silver cords on the legs of nestling phoebes and identified two of them when they returned the next year. Dr. Paul Bartsch of the Smithsonian Institute started the first systematic, scientific banding program of birds in North America in 1902. He banded 23 black-crowned night herons with serial numbered leg bands with the return address of “Return to Smithsonian Institute.”

Jointly administered by The U.S. Department of the Interior and the Canadian Wildlife Service, the North American Bird Banding Program began in 1920. Over 63 million birds have been banded and over 3.5 million have been recovered and reported under this program.  Bird bands range in size from very small to fit a hummingbird leg to very large to fit the leg of a trumpeter swan. No matter their size, the information gained by reporting bird bands is significant.

Banding of all migratory birds in the United States is controlled under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The Bird Banding Laboratory (BBL), located at the U.S. Geological Survey Patuxent Wildlife Research Center controls and issues all federal bands and banding permits.  A federal banding permit is required, and only federal bands may be used on wild migratory birds. Only federal and state authorized individual agencies are allowed to band waterfowl species because the banding information is used to set harvest and season regulations.

Permitted banders include federal and state agencies, university researchers, and private individuals. Permit applicants must be able to show they are qualified to safely capture, handle, and band birds.  

Bird banding data is helpful in both research and management programs. The band on a bird identifies that individual and can provide knowledge of its movement, survival and behavior. Bird band data is used to study bird habitat use, reproduction, and migration patterns; monitor populations; assess and manage endangered species; and set hunting regulations.

All federal metal bands, auxiliary markers such as colored leg and neckbands for geese, and bands from foreign governments should be reported to the Bird Banding Laboratory by calling the telephone number on the band or logging onto http://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/BBL and following the links on how to identify and report a bird band. The reporter will receive information on when and where the bird was banded. 

Alabama is one of 27 states currently participating in a mourning dove banding project. Data on age specific survival and harvest rates of mourning doves is being obtained. In the past three years, 3,329 doves have been banded in Alabama. Report mourning dove bands by calling 1-800-327-band (2263) or going to the http://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/BBL Web site.


Other types of bands may be encountered. Falconers may legally have birds of prey that are banded. Individuals may band pigeons, parrots, cockatiels, and finches. State agencies may band non-migratory birds, such as quail or turkey.

Banding birds has proven to be a very successful method of gaining valuable information. Should you find a bird band, by taking the time to note the band number and reporting the information, you may have contributed significantly to an on-going project. Managing bird populations is global.


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