The Origin of Bird Banding

In 1937, Milwaukee Journal reporter Gordon MacQuarrie wrote a magazine story titled, “The Bluebills Died at Dawn,” about a northern Wisconsin duck hunt for diving ducks more formally known as scaup.

MacQuarrie (1900-1956) wrote, “The duck hunter, probing the secrets of a new day, sees the night retreat, and nothing is so fine as daylight coming and night departing while wings overhead whisper the old and unsolved mystery of migration. No other sport with rod or gun holds so much of mystery and drama. The game comes out of the sky.”

Right about when MacQuarrie was in his prime, writing his poetic words about game coming out of the sky, U.S. Geological Survey’s Bird Banding Laboratory (USGS BBL) staff were finding out where those birds headed during migration by capturing them and attaching numbered aluminum bands to their legs. Established in 1920, the lab supports the collection, archiving, management and dissemination of information from banded and marked birds in North America.

Bird bands on a call lanyard.

Along with the Canadian Wildlife Service, the BBL administers the North American Bird Banding Program, which manages more than 77 million archived banding records and more than five million records of “encounters” – bands turned in by hunters and others. Volunteers and wildlife staff in the U.S. and Canada band not just waterfowl, but birds of all sizes, from hummingbirds to eagles.

Of those millions, around 100,000 band encounter reports are submitted annually to the BBL. The information provides biologists with valuable guidance for bird conservation.

If you hunt waterfowl, or are a bird-watcher, chances are you’ll encounter a banded bird. I have 11 leg bands from ducks and geese, nine of which are secured to my duck/goose call lanyard. A tenth band, from one of the last ducks my old retriever brought to me, hangs around my neck. Band no. 11 is from a ring-billed gull that I suspect was lunch for a bald eagle, since its leg and band were found just below the nest.

My hunting partners and I treasure the bands we have from as far north as Medicine Hat, Alberta, to the suburbs of Detroit.

In October 2000, I shot a duck in Munuscong Bay that had been banded 13 years earlier in Ohio. The band was so old that a groove had worn in the metal and the numbers were illegible until the USGS etched them with acid.

In 2016, during a hunt in the St. Mary’s River, a buddy shot a Canada goose that had been banded the same day as a banded goose he shot a year earlier.

But you don’t have to hunt a bird to see a band. It’s fairly easy to see bands on Canada geese in local parks and golf courses in the Cloverland service area. With binoculars, you may even be able to read the numbers.


Joe Susi of Sault Ste. Marie with a banded goose

In the same 1937 magazine article, MacQuarrie wrote, “Where, 24 hours ago, was that flock of geese which sends its haunting cry earthward? Where was that same flock this morning when you laced your boots and drained your coffee cup? Somewhere over Lake Superior? Looking down on top of an autumn blow through which, perhaps, the blunt nose of a freighter plunged like a trifling pencil on mountainous seas?”

Thanks to the work of the USGS, we now know a lot more about where those geese are coming from, where they’re going, and how they’re doing.

To learn more about bird banding and how it contributes to bird science, or to report a band number, visit

By Tom Pink