Bird ringing in Southern Africa is administered by the South African Bird Ringing Unit (SAFRING) at the University of Cape Town.
Birds are ringed for us to be able to identify them as individuals so that we can learn more about their lives; such as how long they live and when and where they move. Placing a lightweight, uniquely numbered, metal ring around a bird’s leg provides a reliable and harmless method of identifying birds as individuals.
We keep records of the date, place where the ring was fitted along with various measurements and compare that to where and when the ringed bird was found again. Some birds, especially waders, some swallows, warblers etc. are migratory. This means they fly thousands of kilometres to South Africa every year and then back to their breeding grounds in the northern hemisphere or further north in Africa. Bird rings help scientists to learn more about where these birds fly to and from, and how we can help to conserve them.
There are currently around 130 active ringers operating in South Africa and neighbouring countries. About 70 000 birds are ringed annually. A SAFRING Authority card is issued to approved ringers and a Provincial ringing permit is a legal requirement for anyone ringing birds. SAFRING has a strict code of ethics to ensure the safety of birds handled.
Birds are caught for ringing in a variety of ways. 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 catch birds in flight. This method is very effective but birds can only be removed safely from mist nets by experienced ringers.
I’ve loved joining in the process, being outdoors and getting to see so many birds up close. It has also helped my ID skills tremendously.
The life of a bird ringer:
* Visit the ringing site to find a suitable location to put the nets up. There has to be enough clearance as the nets are typically about 3m high. It’s best to place the nets between trees/bushes or along a forest edge where there is a lot of bird movement. This obviously depends on the species you want to catch. Some terrains would yield lower volumes of birds but could still be rewarding in terms of catching something special.
* Wake up really early! Somewhere between 3am and 4am (depending on season and location)
* Set up the nets. This can take anywhere from 1.5 to 2 hours to complete and is done in the dark so that the nets are up by first light. This is the best time of day to catch birds as they start moving around to feed. The nets can’t be fully extended until it’s light enough that bats are no longer flying around. Getting a bat (with surprisingly sharp teeth) out a net is a precarious job!
* Check the nets every 20 minutes to half an hour. You don’t want to be constantly checking nets as this will scare birds away from the area.
* Remove the birds. This needs to be done by an experienced ringer or a trainee under supervision. There is a method that has to be used to ensure the birds don’t get hurt. Always untangle the feet first, then the wings and finally the head.
* Birds are placed in a bag on their own until ready to be ringed. Birds are never placed together in a bag as they could fight and harm one another. The bag is weighed before and after the bird is removed to determine the weight of the bird.
* Measure and record the bird’s details. Once ready, remove the bird from the bag carefully – they can easily get out! After determining the birds weight, the correct ring size is chosen (based on leg width), number recorded and ring placed on one leg. Wing, bill and head length are measured and recorded. Any moulting of feathers is checked for. A note is made of whether the bird is male/female (not possible to tell for all birds) and if it’s an adult or juvenile (juveniles have pale, fleshy gapes – the area at the base of the bill)
* Photograph the bird. The property owners always love to see the birds caught, often surprised by which birds are actually have around. It’s great to have these records on-hand to show others and for future reference.
* Release the bird 🙂
* Capture all the information on the SAFRING website.
* Take down the nets. This is another 1.5 to 2 hours of work before heading home.
We don’t always appreciate the amount of time, effort and personal expense that bird ringers put into this awesome research project. Next time you use a bird book know that a lot of that information has come from a few very dedicated, passionate bird ringers who help us learn more about the birds around us.
What to do if you find a ring or a ringed bird:
- If you find a dead bird, take it off the dead bird’s leg, straighten it out, and tape it onto a piece of paper.
- If you find a live bird with a ring on its leg: DO NOT remove the ring as you may injure the bird. Carefully read the number, write it down and send information to SAFRING.
- Write down the following information:
- Your name and address
- All the numbers on the ring
- The date you found the ring
- The place you found the ring (Location – GPS position if possible)
- Record the position and order of colour rings if any.
- The circumstances of finding the ring:
- How you found the ring
- Describe the birds’ condition, or how you suspect the bird died
- Can you identify how long the bird has been dead?
Send the information to SAFRING via their website & complete the online form or submit the information via email.
South African Bird Ringing Unit
Tel & Fax: (021) 650 3434