Finding Wisdom in A Century’s Worth of Bird Banding Records

The U.S. Geological Survey's Bird Banding Lab "puts a ring on it" and reveals the wonders of birds migration.

Long ago there were some very creative ideas about where birds disappeared to during the winter months. Did birds migrate to the moon? Morph into other species? Hibernate underwater? To answer these questions, people began marking birds to see if an individual specimen returned the next year. This technique eventually led to a highly effective analog technology known as banding, or ringing, that is widely used today.


Developed at the turn of the 20th century, bird banding uses metal or colored leg bands or colored wing tags marked with a unique number or alpha-code as a method for documenting re-encounters of individual birds. Bands are affordable, dependable and extremely lightweight—the smallest weigh only 0.001 gram—and can be used on all sizes and species of birds, from hummingbirds to eagles. In North America, the US Geological Survey’s Bird Banding Lab, established in 1920 by visionary scientists, is a cornerstone for avian conservation and research. In the last 100 years, approximately 77 million bands have been deployed with over 5 million re-encounters reported. This research has led to some amazing insights about birds and their lives. For example, it tells us that the oldest-known living banded bird is a 70-year-old Laysan Albatross named Wisdom who hatched her 39th chick last year. With impressive records like these, there is indeed a lot of wisdom captured in this extensive dataset.


Dr. Antonio Celis-Murillo is the Chief of the Bird Banding Lab, located at the USGS Eastern Ecological Science Center in Maryland. Throughout his career he has studied avian ecology and behavior with the overarching goal of improving conservation efforts. “Birds are good indicators of environmental health because they are sensitive to habitat change. Changes in bird populations can signal environmental issues, such as impacts from extreme weather or human development, which could affect other parts of the ecosystem,” he says.


Celis-Murillo is not alone in his passion for bird banding research. Thousands of trained banders spend time each spring and fall banding and recovering birds. Each year 1.2 million new band records are submitted from banding stations across the US and Canada resulting in about 100,000 reports of encountered birds. Dr. Nat Seavy, Audubon’s director of migration science, explained, “My backyard birds are international travelers, but they are also backyard birds for many other people along the way. Adding millions of banding records to the Bird Migration Explorer allows us to visualize these data, appreciate the wonder of bird migration and explore our connection to faraway places and cultures across the hemisphere.”


This rich dataset allows scientists to understand migration patterns, population connectivity, site fidelity, life span, wildlife diseases and environmental contaminants. Banding data have informed land conservation and species recovery goals and helped set hunting regulations. Mapping the data shows us how landscapes are connected by birds and can help identify problem areas for declining populations. When asked about the significance of the Lab, Celis-Murillo relayed his historical perspective that “despite many obstacles such as World Wars I and II, the Great Depression, and changes in administrations and federal reorganizations, among many other important events in history, the mission of the Bird Banding Laboratory remains constant to support avian conservation research in the United States and Canada.”


There is no question that birds bring joy, and that they are key to engaging people and society in appreciating the beauty of nature and conservation,” Celis-Murillo says. That’s why the Bird Banding Lab is a major data provider to Audubon’s Migratory Bird Initiative, helping us achieve our goal of engaging people in the joy of migration and protecting places birds need most throughout their range.


You can help with the Migratory Bird Initiative and broader bird research by reporting any banded birds you encounter at and by taking actions that protect birds. Learn more at