About Ringing


Why do we ring birds?


Much has been discovered about birds by watching and counting them, but such methods rarely allow birds to be identified as individuals. This is essential if we are to learn about how long they live and when and where they move, questions that are vital for bird conservation. Placing a lightweight, uniquely numbered, metal ring around a bird's leg, provides a reliable and harmless method of identifying birds as individuals. Each ring also bears an address so that anyone finding a ringed bird can help by reporting its whereabouts and fate. Some ringing projects also use colour rings to allow individual birds to be identified in the field.

migration-map_BTOAfter 100 years of bird ringing in Britain and Ireland, we are continuing to discover new facts about migration routes and wintering areas. However, the main focus of the Ringing Scheme today is the monitoring of bird populations. Ringing allows us to study how many young birds leave the nest and survive to become adults as well as how many adults survive the stresses of breeding, migration and severe weather. Changes in survival rates and other aspects of birds' biology help us to understand the causes of population declines. Such information is so important for conservation that the BTO runs two special projects to collect it:

  • The Constant Effort Sites (CES) scheme provides information on population size, breeding success and survival of bird species living in scrub and wetland habitats. Ringers work at over 130 CES sites each year.
  • The Retrapping Adults for Survival (RAS) project gathers survival data for a wide range of species, particularly those of current conservation concern.

Ringing allowed us to show that declines in the number of Sedge Warblers breeding in Britain and Ireland was linked to lower levels of rainfall in their African wintering quarters. We have also found that the recent dramatic decline in the numbers of Song Thrushes has been caused by a reduction in the survival rate of young birds. This information will help us to identify the environmental factors responsible for the decline.


Ringing in Britain and Ireland


The British and Irish Ringing Scheme is organised by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). Around 800,000 birds are ringed in Britain and Ireland each year by about 2,500 trained ringers, most of whom are volunteers. On average, fewer than one out of every fifty birds ringed is subsequently reported to the BTO from a different place, so every report of a ringed bird is of value.

Part of the BTO Ringing Scheme is funded by a partnership of the BTO, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (on behalf of English Nature, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Countryside Council for Wales, and also on behalf of the Environment and Heritage Service in Northern Ireland),. The Scheme also receives support from Duchas the Heritage Service - National Parks and Wildlife (Ireland).The volunteer ringers give freely of their time and expertise and also provide a substantial part of the Scheme's funding.


Does ringing affect the birds?


rings_BTOThe simple answer is no. It is essential that birds are not affected unduly by the fitting and wearing of a ring; if they were, ringing would not tell us how normal birds behaved. Many studies have shown that birds ringed during the breeding season quickly return to incubating eggs, or feeding chicks, once they are released, and long distance migrants continue to travel thousands of miles between breeding and wintering grounds. Birds will not be affected as long as ringing is carried out by skilled ringers with the utmost consideration for the birds' welfare. It is not surprising that ringing has little effect on birds because, relative to the bird's weight, a ring is similar to a wristwatch on a human.


How are birds caught for ringing?


Birds are caught for ringing in a variety of ways. About twenty percent are ringed as chicks in the nest; this is valuable because their precise age and origin are then known. The method most frequently used to catch fully-grown birds is the mist-net, this is a fine net erected between poles and is designed to trap birds in flight. This method is very effective but birds can only be removed safely from mist-nets by experienced ringers, who have received special training.



Learning to ring


ringersmanual_smallThe skills necessary to become a ringer can only be learnt by practice under the close supervision of experienced ringers. Essential skills include the safe and efficient trapping and handling of birds, identification, ageing, sexing measuring, record keeping and reporting to the Ringing Unit. For this reason, ringers undertake a several years of training during which they are only allowed to ring birds under supervision. Their progress through the permit system is assessed by an independent ringer, whose own ability has been judged to a high standard. In this way, the BTO Ringing Scheme maintains very high standards of bird welfare and scientific data. A BTO ringing permit is also a legal requirement and is, in many ways, similar to a driving licence but has to be renewed annually.

If you would like to find out more about how to become a ringer please contact the BTO.




Reporting a ringed bird


Please report any ringed bird that you find or colour ringed bird that you see.

  • THE SPECIES - Write down the type of species of bird, if you know.
  • THE RING - Write down the ring number and, if the bird is dead, please enclose the ring taped to your letter. The ring will be returned to you if you wish to keep it. If it is not a BTO ring (address starting BTO or British Museum), please give the address as well.
  • WHERE - Give the location the bird was found including the name of the nearest town or village, county and a grid reference if possible.
  • WHEN - Give the date the ringed bird was found.
  • THE CIRCUMSTANCES - Say if the bird was alive or dead. If dead, please give the cause of death if known, eg was it hit by a car, brought in by a cat, or found oiled on a beach? Also note if the bird was freshly dead or decomposed etc. If the bird is alive please say what happened to it.
  • YOUR DETAILS - Don't forget to give your name and address so that you can be sent the information about when and where the bird had been ringed. Details will normally be sent within a month, but there may be delays at busy times of year. If you send a report of a ringed bird by E-mail, please include your postal address.

Please remember, if you see a healthy wild bird wearing a ring, feeding on your bird table for example, you must not try to catch it. In these situations you may be able to read the ring number through a telescope.

Use the BTO's on-line reporting form, or contact them at:

The Ringing Unit
The Nunnery
Norfolk IP24 2PU
Tel: 01842 750050; Fax: 01842 750030



Colour rings and tags



colour_ringsx200Colour rings are used for a number of detailed studies into some bird species, on the larger birds the colour rings are usually inscribed with a short sequence of letters and numbers which is often easy to read with binoculars or a telescope. Various tagging schemes are also used and you may have noticed that many of the Red Kites in Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire have wing tags.

If you report a bird with colour rings it is important to note the order of colour rings down the bird's leg(s), the colour of any writing on the rings and what the inscription says, and which legs the rings are on.

All records are valuable even if it's just your local colour ringed Mute Swans and Canada Geese as even these records help build up a pictures of site fidelity and the age structures of bird populations.

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