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How does bird banding work?

Amy holding saw-whet owlBird banding is the process of affixing small, lightweight, and durable metal bands—similar to tiny bracelets—to the legs of birds for research and tracking. Neither the bands nor the banding process harm the birds in any way.

bird bandsBird banding as a research tool started in 1902 when a researcher from the Smithsonian Institution began banding birds that he had captured and released, making it possible to track information about birds if they were recaptured later. In 2001, the Powdermill banding station reached the milestone of half a million birds banded. Today's records number well over 600,000.

Modern bird banding often begins with a mist net, a web of extremely fine mesh which is set up like a badminton net in places frequented by birds. Birds fly into the net, after which museum researchers at the Powdermill station remove them and make a set of standardized observations of every bird, such as age, sex, species, weight, amount of fat on the body, and condition of the feathers. All of these data are recorded in a database and associated with a unique number stamped on the bird band, which is affixed to one of the bird’s legs. If the bird is ever recaptured or if the band is found—whether by Carnegie Museum researchers or any other banding station—the bird’s information can be tracked by researchers who identify the bird by its band number.

waterthrushIn the photo at left, a Louisiana waterthrush displays a set of four bands on its ankles. This species is undergoing a long-term conservation study at Powdermill, and the numbered bands provide a way to track individual birds over months or even years.

Bird banding data have allowed scientists from Carnegie Museum of Natural History and other institutions to conduct long-term nature studies, which are vital because they can reveal trends in such areas as population demography, biodiversity, and ecosystem stability—information critical to decision-making about current and future conservation issues. Learn more about banding and our migratory bird research on the banding station's website:

Other photos: (Top) common bird bands in various sizes; (left) Louisiana waterthrush; (top right) Powdermill bioacoustics researcher Amy Tegeler holds a northern saw-whet owl in the banding lab


Carnegie Museum of Natural History
4400 Forbes Avenue Pittsburgh, PA 15213
One of the four Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh

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