“To band a bird is to hold a ticket in a great lottery” – Sand County Almanac, 1949.

Insider Story: Lydia Ishmael

My father worked in the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for 30 years as a Wildlife Specialist. Since I was a kid, I got to volunteer and take part in all types of projects with the Wisconsin DNR, thanks to him. I got to participate in prairie burns, releasing rehabilitated wildlife, tagging black bears, and much more.

But my favorite project of all is the one I got to do every year; banding wild birds.

Public marshland in Sauk County, Wisconsin. 2002

What are Bird Bands?

Bird bands are usually a small metal bracelet that is placed around the leg of a bird. Sometimes, a bird band can be in the form of a neck bracelet if the bird is a certain size or type, and some birds can receive multiple bands. Each of these bands has a one-of-a-kind number or number/letter sequence printed onto it. This sequence specifically references where and when the bird was banded, and usually the band can also say the rough age that the bird was banded at.

Bird banding is frequently done by the DNR, although there are federal and international programs that take part in bird banding. Because of this, bird bands and the information that is linked to them, can be accessed online anywhere in the world. A bird that is banded in Minnesota by the DNR may later be found in Ireland by a bird watcher and then reported online.

Green-Wing Teal. Banded in Texas, recaptured by Jamo Haag in North Dakota. 2020

The Purpose of Bird Bands

These numbered bands serve many purposes in regards to bird conservation, research, and tracking. If and when a banded bird is recaptured or killed (with the band still on) the numbers can be reported online. Once the recaptured band has been reported to the federal government, the information that is connected to the bird will be updated with the time, place and manner of how the band was found. This gives the federal government and DNR the information they need to advance their conservation efforts and research. The fun part for the individual that discovers the band is that they also get access to this information at no cost.

For example, sometimes a hunter will get a duck that was originally banded across the country, or right in their own hunting grounds many years ago. Lots of hunters that acquire banded birds tend to keep the band after they harvest the bird.

Recovered a bird with a band? Report it here:  www.reportband.gov

As for the purpose these bands serve for the DNR and the government, it is not what many people assume. Lots of people think that bird banding is done only to track migration and bird travel. There is some truth to this, as reporting a captured band does include location history, and therefore automatically “tracks” the bird. However, migration patterns and bird travel have been heavily studied already and there isn’t much need for that research to be repeated. Instead, the bands serve a purpose of helping the DNR (and other programs) determine bird populations, trends, longevity, and common causes of death. Bird bands can also assist in monitoring endangered bird species. With the information that is gathered from recaptured or monitored bands, the federal government can make decisions that benefit the future bird populations, such as setting the bag limits that hunters can get for a certain type of bird.

Types of Banded Birds & How They’re Banded

Most types of birds can be banded, but the most common being waterfowl. Many major DNR offices annually band game birds, such as geese and ducks. Whereas less common birds such as swans and cranes, or non-hunted birds, are not banded as frequently (and sometimes they are banded by private research groups, not the DNR).


These large, common birds are banded annually during the mid-summer months. That time of year is when young geese, or goslings, are large enough to be banded but are still flightless. The geese are captured in a very unique manner, although technique can vary on location or the group that is doing the banding project.

One common practice for capturing geese is using kayaks to herd the geese out of the water, if necessary, and then circling in around the group on land using large, mesh frames. These frames are lightweight, easy to maneuver, and do no harm to the geese– all while blocking them into a small, enclosed space. From there, the geese are taken out individually and given a metal band on their leg before being released back into the water.

Canada Geese in Yellowstone State Park, Wisconsin. 2015


Many Wood ducks, Teal, and Mallards are banded annually in the late summer to early fall. Shortly before the birds migrate south they are captured and banded in large groups. The most common technique for capturing these skittish, quick-moving, small birds is by rocket net near a bait pile (usually corn). Bait piles are set up weeks prior so that the ducks hopefully become familiar with the food site and visit it daily. These bait piles are most often set up near a marsh or river bottom area since that is where the biggest duck populations tend to be found.

Wood duck banding station. 2021

Duck banding is done in the early hours of the morning right before the sun comes out. During this time, the ducks move in for their morning breakfast on the bait pile, and with little to no other wildlife around, the birds feel comfortable. However, they are unaware that a person is sitting in a small hunting blind a few yards away, and they entered the blind long before the ducks were even up and about. A quarter mile away, the rest of the volunteers and banding crew are waiting to hear the rocket net go off.

The individual in the blind has the trigger for the rocket net. After waiting patiently and quietly in the blind for over an hour watching the bait pile, they hold off on shooting the net until the most opportune moment. Although no shot is 100% perfect at capturing all the birds on the site, a majority of the birds tend to be caught under the net before they have the chance to escape. From there, the ducks are taken out individually by some of the crew, while the rest put on the bands. Each duck is given a metal band on their leg, and then released back into the marsh.

Rocket net over 68 ducks in Iowa County, Wisconsin near the Wisconsin River. 2021


Swans are rarely banded and are usually done as a special project through a private researcher that partners with the DNR. Furthermore, banding swans takes a great deal of effort, careful planning, and a large team of people with kayaks. Sometimes, an airplane is also involved in the project.

Mississippi River marsh area in Southwestern Wisconsin. 2015

Young swans are banded while they are still flightless, but are almost as large as their adult parents. During this stage in their life, the family of swans tend to hide in marshes, swamps, or aquatic areas that offer a lot of cover from predators. The swan capture team enters this area on a bunch of kayaks, while an airplane circles overhead to direct the kayakers to where the swans are located in the heavy foliage. As the kayak team gets closer, the swan parents fly away, leaving their young behind in the water. At that time, the kayakers have the opportunity to close in on the flightless swans and grab ahold of them. Once a kayaker has hold of a swan, they can lift and maneuver the bird into the front of their kayak where the bird can rest between the legs of the kayaker as they make their way back to the banding site.

At the banding site, the young swans are given yellow neck bracelets with large numbers engraved on them. Swans are given this type of band so that the band can be easily read from a far distance. After the bands are placed, the swans are all released together at the same time back into the water. The parent swans are usually waiting nearby for the safe return of their young.

Mississippi River, banded swan release. 2015

Other Banded Birds:

Many other types of birds are also banded, some examples include Mourning doves, Sandhill cranes, various pigeons, and pelicans. However, these types are not banded quite as often, as easily, or are being monitored in other ways. Regardless, the DNR and other groups are always banding birds, with the main goal most often being conservation.

The Bird Banding Experience

I would rarely get a good nights sleep the night before a day of bird banding due to my excitement and anticipation. Bird banding was always something to look forward to (and still is when I get the chance to volunteer). Being able to hold and handle a wild bird and release them afterwards is an experience that is incomparable to anything else.

My bird banding experiences will live with me forever. Not only that, but the people that I got to experience it with were truly remarkable– the other volunteers, the DNR biologists, and of course, my dad.

Related Wisconsin Journal article by Jerry Davis: Volunteer Catches on by Banding Birds

Upcoming blog post: A Night With Sandhill Cranes

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