Bird Banding

By Benjamin P. Burtt


CAPTION: The herring gull is the large common gull in Central New York. Shown here is the full adult plumage or breeding plumage that is not attained until the third or fourth year. In its earlier years it is a dark colored bird, but it gets lighter in color each year. ( Photo courtesy of Jay and Kevin McGowan)

Scientists tell us that the herring gull lives longer than most birds. But how do they find out how old a bird is when it dies? You can’t tell by inspection. The one shown in the photograph is at least three years old, but it could be much older.

To find out how long a bird lives, a numbered aluminum leg band provided by the Fish and Wildlife Service is put on the leg of a nestling bird and that information is recorded. If that bird is found years later and the number on the band is reported to the address on the band, its age at that time can be calculated.

Finding a banded bird

If you ever find a banded bird, prepare a letter and send it to the address on the band. Include a record of the circumstances under which it was found. If the bird is alive, it should be released wearing its band after you record and send in the number on the band.

If the bird is dead, remove the aluminum band, tape it to the letter. Write the band number in the letter in case the band is lost in the mail. You will be notified where the bird was banded and when, and the person who banded it will learn what happened to the bird.

Here is the story of what is probably the oldest banded bird that spent its entire life in the wild.
On June 29 ,1930 Dr.O.S. Pettingill banded herring gull chicks on a small island off the coast of Maine. Some years later when he was Director of the Laboratory of Ornithology at Cornell University he received a letter from the Banding Office that one of those chicks was found dead by some girl scouts on the shore of a lake in Michigan.

This gull had moved inland from its birthplace and had lived 36 years. That 36 year old life span may well be a world record for a bird living in the wild.

Benjamin P. Burtt writes about birds every other week for Stars. Write to him in care of Stars Magazine, P.0. Box 4915, Syracuse, N.Y. 13221; or ( put "birds" in the subject field).