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Ellie Mayhew

Updated: May 8, 2021

Guest Blogger this week is the beautiful . Ellie is an ecologist and conservationist and most of her work over the last few years has involved bird ringing. She writes a fabulous blog which you can find via her Instagram page and has very kindly written this blog for us.

Did you know we have recorded 621 different types of bird here in the UK? That’s a lot of different bird species! Whilst some are occasional visitors to our shores, others live here all year round, and some even make long journeys across land and sea every spring from places like Africa, where they spend the winter. Some are big, like Mute Swans, and some are very small, like Goldcrests, which weigh the same as a20p coin!

Much of the world’s wildlife, including birds, is under pressure from threats such as habitat loss and climate change. As a result, some animal populations are declining, with some even on the brink of extinction. Conservation efforts areunderway across the globe, and scientists, charities and government agencies are all working to help save and protect habitats and species.

An important part of wildlife conservation is keeping track of how many animals there are in the wild. This is called population monitoring, and it helps us to identify which species are doing well and which species are declining. There are lots of different ways to monitor populations, and the method we use depends on the animal group we are interested in.

Birds are not always the easiest animals to monitor. They fly, sometimes high in the sky, and they can be secretive and hard to spot in tree canopies and hedgerows. Experts can identify bird species by their songs and calls, and also by the way they are flying. Some people even monitor birds’ nests, recording things like the number of eggs laid and the number of chicks that fledge, providing us with data on breeding productivity(this is called the Nest Record Scheme). There are also people who ring birds, which allows us to identify individual birdsand helps us to collect all sorts of important data for population monitoring and conservation.

Bird ringing involves catching wild birds and fitting their leg with a lightweight metal ring. Each ring is stamped with its own unique identification number, which means we can identify each individual bird that we have ringed. Bird ringing is undertaken by specially trained volunteers who hold a license issued by a charity called the British Trust for Ornithology. Ornithology is the scientific study of birds. There are over 2,500 trained bird ringers in the UK and Ireland, and they ring a whopping 900,000 birds each year!

Birds are caught in different ways depending on the species. We don’t catch small birds like Robins in the same way that we’d catch a goose! Bird ringers usually use nets to catch birds, but there are also different types of traps that work too. The most common method of catching birds is a mist net, which looks a bit like a badminton net and is made up of a series of long net pockets strung between two poles. Mist nets are used for catching birds in flight: because the net strings are so thin, birds often don’t see them and fly into the net,falling into one of the pockets. Bird ringers check the nets regularly and carefully extract any birds that have been captured.

When we ring a bird, we hold it in a special grip called the ‘ringer’s grip’ to ensure the bird is safe and remains unharmed, because it can’t flap around or hurt itself. We fit the ring using specially-designed pliers. There are lots of different ring sizes, with the smallest, called an AA ring, taken by tiny birds like Chiff Chaffs and Long-tailed Tits, and the largest rings being fitted to Mute Swans. We take a close look at the bird to work out its age and whether it is a male or a female. We can usually tell these things by looking at a bird’s plumage, but in some species we have to look at other things too – for example you can tell male and female Kingfishers apart by looking at the colour of their beak. Lastly, wemeasure the length of the bird’s wing and record its weight(and some ringers record other measurements too). The bird is then released and it flies away!

Not only do we collect data when we ring a bird, butsometimes ringed birds are caught by other bird ringers, or they are found dead. Bird ringing gives us lots of information,such as migration and movements of birds, including where their overwintering sites may be if they are migratory, how long they live for, and whether or not they return to the same breeding site each year (this is called site fidelity).

We can also combine the data we collect from ringing birds with data from other bird surveys, such as the Nest Record Scheme (which monitors breeding success), to understand overall survival rates. This allows us to identify population change, including declines, and helps to pinpoint which stage of life these changes are occurring at. All of this data is very important in conservation, as firstly, it helps to identify population declines, and secondly, it can help to guide conservationists when they are trying to work out what may be causing these declines. It is essential to know these things before conservation work is carried out, so that you know the exact problems you are trying to put right.

Thankfully there is lots of fantastic conservation work taking place all over the world, and there have been some excellent success stories. It’s wonderful to be involved with bird ringing and contribute to the global conservation effort!

You can read more about the British and Irish bird ringing scheme here:

You can see how long different bird species can live here:

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