Ringed eagle. Photograph: Kristinn Haukur Skarphéðinsson.
Act no. 64/1994 on the protection, conservation and hunting of birds and wild mammals charges the IINH with bird marking. Indeed, the IINH alone has the authority to mark (ring) wild birds in Iceland. The IINH must ensure that basic data is sorted uniformly and that recoveries are accessible for research (cf. Article 4). The Act also states that anyone who finds or captures a marked bird is required to return the marker to the IINH, along with more detailed information on the find, regardless of whether the bird was marked in Iceland or abroad. Research that involves bird ringing and the recovery of bird rings (or other markers) requires the cooperation of hunters, fishers, farmers and indeed society as a whole in returning rings and providing information on where they were found. Those who send bird rings and information on where they were found to the IINH receive in turn information on where and when a bird was ringed.
Bird ringing is carried out by bird enthusiasts and ornithologists who have received the necessary ringing permit – so-called bird ringers. A basic ringing permit allows a bird ringer to capture wild birds, fit them with metal bird rings and then release them again after ringing is complete. Other marking is forbidden without an additional permit. Bird ringing is volunteer work, but bird ringers have rights in handling wild birds that others do not, including the right to use otherwise illegal equipment to capture birds and the right to approach the nests of rare birds.
Bird ringing as a research tool
Bird ringing is a simple but important way of studying birds and bird migrations. By marking birds, one can observe both movements within a country and international migrations. Ringing nestlings and chicks (pulli) is also often the only way to determine how old a bird lives to be and the age at which the bird reaches sexual maturity and begins to breed. Finally, bird ringing can provide population ecologists with important data on survival rates, causes of death, age distribution and population size for a given bird population.
Ringing can be used to estimate bird populations: the number of ringed birds is known, and thus by assuming that the proportion of ringed and unringed birds caught reflects the proportion of ringed and unringed birds for an entire population, one can easily calculate the population size. For such an estimate to be accurate, however, ringed individuals must be equally distributed throughout a population and be caught as frequently as unringed individuals. This can be difficult to guarantee, meaning that this simple method is often unusable except for a specific population within a relatively small area. If, on the other hand, the hunting death rate and the number of hunted birds for a given population are known, the population size may be calculated within a certain margin of safety. Finally, by carrying out a programme of ringing that involves a uniform distribution of rings across all age groups and regular recaptures over a given period of time, one can calculate the survival rate for a given species. This requires the use of complex statistical procedures, however.
Goose with a neck collar. Photograph: Gunnar Þór Hallgrímsson.
How are birds marked?
Bird marking can involve anything from numbered rings or bands to sophisticated satellite transmitters. Traditional bird rings are simple metal bands engraved with a number – unique for each bird – and the address for the ringing scheme. In Iceland, metal rings from the IINH may be used to ring wild birds. Other markers (such as colour rings and transmitters) may not be placed on a wild bird without a special permit to carry out such research.
Most bird rings used in Iceland are made of stainless steel – these are placed on seabirds, geese, ducks, waders and other long-lived species or species that spend long periods of time in and around fresh or salt water. Aluminum rings are used for a number of short-lived land birds.
Engraved plastic rings fitted on a bird's neck or leg are often used in certain kinds of ornithological research, for example studies of geese and swans. These rings may be coloured and be coded with two to three letters or numbers, unique for each bird in the study. Plastic rings can be read from a distance with the help of good binoculars or a telescope, allowing researchers to track a bird without capturing or killing it. Over time, data can gradually be collected on the movements and migrations of individual birds. The same is true for plastic wing tags, marked with a combination of letters and numbers, which have for example been used to mark eiders in Iceland. With the advent of digital cameras, it has become increasingly common to use photography as a tool in capturing the numbers on bird rings without having to recatch the bird.
Radio transmitters have been used in various studies in Iceland over the last few decades, for example in assessing the ptarmigan survival rate. Specialised markings such as these allow researchers to track birds more closely than possible with traditional bird rings. This new method also eliminates the need for rings to be returned. At the same time, the transmitters themselves may affect the birds' behaviour and life expectancy. Satellite transmitters have also been fitted on wild birds, but birds must be of a size that they can carry such devices with ease. These satellite transmitters give researchers the means of tracking the daily movements of birds. Tracking data is frequently posted to the Internet. Geolocators are a still more recent innovation in bird tracking – less accurate than satellite devices but far cheaper. They are much smaller than satellite transmitters and thus can be used to track much smaller birds. The downside to geolocators is that birds must be recaptured to download data. Geolocators are most suitable for tracking birds that migrate long distances. A number of bird studies in Iceland have made use of geolocators, including research on puffins, arctic terns, Manx sheerwaters, red-throated divers and common scoters.
When did bird ringing begin in Iceland?
In 1921, Danish scientist Peter Skovgaard initiated a bird ringing scheme in Iceland. The IINH (and its forerunner, the Natural History Museum) assumed responsibility for bird ringing in 1932. A series of reports were published over these first decades, detailing ringing activities, the number of ringed birds, names of bird ringers and recoveries of ringed birds. The practice was unfortunately discontinued in 1953.
Processing of ringing data
The IINH aims to digitalise all ringing data and develop a system where bird ringers can submit ringing data online. Work has begun on a web interface that will allow those who find ringed birds to send information to the IINH online. The IINH also has plans to publish an online magazine with guidelines for ringers, updates on ringing activities, information on various interesting ringing projects and results and an overview of ringings and recoveries.
Bird ringing and results for 2008:
- Ringing: In 2008 there were around 50,000 ringing entries in the database, both ringings for that year and older ringings. The vast majority of ringed birds were snow buntings (2,711) and redwings (2,341), with the tern coming in third (1,434). A total of 59 species were ringed in 2008 according to data that the ringing scheme had received in April 2010.
- Results: Almost 1,100 results were recorded, most of which were ringings reported that year.
- Bird ringers: A total of 31 ringers sent in their ringing reports in 2008. The organisers of the Bird Research Centre of South-East Iceland, Björn Arnarson and Brynjúlfur Brynjólfsson, ringed 2,323 birds. Sverrir Thorstensen ringed 1,926 birds and Óskar J. Sigurðsson ringed 1,673. Some bird ringers might not have sent in their reports for 2008 yet.
In April 2010, the IINH bird ringing database contained around 413,000 entries. An estimated 500,000 birds have been ringed or otherwise marked in Iceland, meaning that around a fifth of all ringing entries have yet to be digitised. At the same time, the number of recorded recoveries was 36,000. Only around 2,000 of these recoveries have not been digitised. Digitisation of ringing data is ongoing.
Updated January 2011
Anyone who finds a bird ring or other marker in Iceland is required to send the marker to the following address:
Icelandic Institute of Natural History
P.O. Box 125
Recapturing may also be reported through telephone +354 5 900 500begin_of_the_skype_highlighting +354 5 900 500 end_of_the_skype_highlighting or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.