Why ring birds?
Bird ringing is a useful research tool for the study of migratory birds and their conservation. It allows birds to be individually marked and their movements and other life history traits to be tracked over time. Through ringing, information on dispersal, migration, longevity, behaviour, survival rate, reproductive success and population trends of migratory birds can be obtained.
Ringing programmes, for example, make it possible to identify how many chicks from one population survive and which environmental conditions are favourable or detrimental to the birds. All this information leads to a better insight of the birds' biology and ecology and their demographic changes over time. This knowledge is an important foundation for successful conservation measures.
Whenever ringed birds are found dead, or re-sighted (in the case of colour-rings), they can be identified and their movements can be tracked. This helps to identify the critical sites along their migratory routes (flyways) and provides fundamental information for conservation planning and site management.
Bird ringing basics
The ringing itself does not harm the birds, as long as it is carried out by a trained expert. Bird ringers have to undergo several years of training to learn how to safely capture, handle, measure and process the birds correctly. In most countries, bird ringers also require an official license before they are allowed to ring on their own.
There are different types of bird ringing. Metal rings display the name of the ringing scheme or organisation and usually include a unique number. Colour rings often identify the location where the bird was ringed and/or the year of ringing. The bird can then be identified whenever re-sighted or re-caught. If a bird is recovered (found dead) or re-sighted, the record is reported to the responsible ringing scheme and a report can then be generated to trace its life history. The success of a ringing scheme is largely dependent on the reports of bird watchers and expert volunteers.
A relatively new method of tracking bird movements is satellite telemetry. A tiny transmitter is fixed to the body of the bird and the transmitted signal is then picked up by satellites. Researchers can then continually track the bird and receive a very clear and detailed insight on the bird’s behaviour and migration. However, this method is rather expensive, and therefore limited.
Ringing in Africa
While bird ringing in Europe started as early as 1899, in Africa it started in 1948 when Cape Vulture chicks were ringed near Pretoria in South Africa. Since then it has expanded throughout southern Africa and into other parts of Africa. Currently four ringing schemes operate in Africa:
- Southern Africa Bird Ringing Scheme (SAFRING)
- East African Bird Ringing Scheme (Coordinated by Nature Kenya)
- Ghana Ringing Scheme (PDF Document)
- Morocco Ringing Scheme (Contact details provided on the EURING website)
Although the recovery rate of rings is still generally low, valuable data is continously being collected. This has been highlighted in two important SAFRING publications:
- Review of ring recoveries of Birds of Prey in southern Africa: 1948-1998, published in 1998
- Review of ring recoveries of waterbirds in southern Africa; published in 1999
The challenge for AFRING is to collate and analyse African recovery data and publish a review of African ringing recoveries. The low recovery rate in Africa however remains a problem for scientific research and more importantly conservation planning. This concerns not only migratory birds within Africa, but also species migrating between Africa and Europe. Any ringing efforts in Europe will remain incomplete, as long as data from Africa are not available. On the whole, it is desirable to connect schemes in different African countries and regions as well as to European ringing initiatives.
However, to take ringing forward in Africa, it is necessary to train bird ringers, particularly local African ringers and to find support in the general public for the reporting of rings. This is one of the primary objectives of AFRING.
A few examples
African species for which research ringing programmes have been taken up a few years ago are the Sacred Ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus) and the Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis). Earlier research on the species had suggested long-distance movements from South Africa to Central and Eastern Africa, but little is known about these movements. However, it is hoped that the new colony colour-ringing programme will bring clarification on the exact movements of these species.
There is also generally very little known about movements
of ducks (Anatidae) in Africa. A ringing programme
on a few key species could bring first information on Africa-wide
migration of duck species and hopefully stimulate more duck
ringing initiatives. The Avian Influenza surveillance programmes
have led to an increased number of trapping and ringing of ducks
and smaller projects have come out of this. An example is the
Fitzpatrick Institute of African Ornithology’s colour-banding
project of Egyptian Goose in South Africa to identify patterns
of movement and longevity.