ProjectsForestsCitizen Scientist Color Band ProjectColor Bands 101

Color Bands 101



Blackpoll Warbler with a band. / © Jeff Nadler

Blackpoll Warbler with a USGS aluminum band. / © Jeff Nadler

Every bird that we capture for our research (like the Blackpoll Warbler pictured here) receives an aluminum band. On the aluminum band is a unique 9-digit number, printed in tiny font, that allows anyone who recaptures the bird to ascertain its identity and history. Without recapturing him, you wouldn’t know how old he is or where he was initially captured, and you wouldn’t have access to any other data collected by past research studies.

That’s where color bands can be useful. Color bands are small, lightweight (<0.1 g), plastic colored-markers that attach to a bird’s leg along with the bird’s aluminum band. The placement of the aluminum band, and the colors and order of the color bands, serves as a unique ID that can be read without having to recapture the bird. Banded birds usually have one aluminium band and up to three color bands like the Grasshopper Sparrow pictured below. We use very simple colors for the plastic bands: green, red, blue, yellow, white, orange, and hot pink.


Banded Grasshopper Sparrow

Jason Hill holds a color-banded Grasshopper Sparrow. The bird is marked red over aluminum on the bird’s right leg; white over blue on the bird’s left leg. Notice the difference in the appearance of the white and aluminum bands. © Alex Lehner.

It can be challenging to read the color combo on a moving bird–especially a Song Sparrow in the middle of bush–but that’s half the fun! It’s easy to get the top band confused with the bottom band and to reverse the left and right legs–especially if you see the bird from both the front and the back. Therefore, it’s best to describe the aluminum and color bands’ placement using the bird’s legs. For the Grasshopper Sparrow to the right, one would say that he is marked red over aluminum on the bird’s right leg; white over blue on the bird’s left leg.

Color-banded Song Sparrow

As with this color-banded Song Sparrow, often one cannot see all of the colors bands at once. Usually, the bird will move slightly–allowing you to see the other leg, and territorial males often use the same perch throughout the day It’s easy to mix up the legs here. This bird is banded orange over aluminum on the bird’s right leg, and the color-bands on the bird’s left leg are completely obscured. You should still report this bird, even if you do not see the color bands on the bird’s left leg. ©Lori Iverson.

A color-banded Gray Catbird.

A color-banded Gray Catbird. This is a common situation. You’ll notice that one leg only has an aluminum band on it, but is it the bird’s right or left leg? Answer: this bird was banded white over purple on the bird’s left leg, and aluminum only on its right leg. Photo used with permission, courtesy of Maria de Bruyn: