Ringing - Colour Ringing

Colour Ringing

Ringing▸Colour Marking

Bird ringing started in Britain and Ireland over a hundred years ago and administered by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) since 1937.

Ringing birds involves fitting a very light metal ring to the bird’s leg. Each ring has a unique number and address marked on it so if the ring or bird is recovered at a later date then the BTO can establish how old the bird is, how far it has travelled and when there are more recoveries, migration patterns to or from particular breeding or wintering areas.

Although colour marking has been around for a long time, it has become increasingly popular over the last 40 years and is now a commonly used method of monitoring bird populations. Colour marks such as lightweight plastic rings fitted to birds allows individuals to be identified in the field and has helped uncover many interesting life stories. This additional layer of knowledge helps provide a better understanding of bird ecology and, in turn, the information can be used to identify and implement conservation measures to help manage species populations.

The main advantage is that once a colour ring or marker has been fitted, the bird can be identified in the field without the need to retrap it. In general, many more sightings of colour ringed birds are generated each year than of those bearing only a metal ring.

So which species are suitable for colour marking?

Colour marks can be applied to many species including both passerines and non-passerines, but probably the most suitable species are those with long legs or legs that can be seen when the bird is perched.

Waders and gulls are particularly suited to colour marking; their habitat means that their legs are usually easy to see. Many sightings have been reported to the Ringing Secretary over the last few years, especially from the Channel Island Ringing Scheme, where many large gulls have been ringed whilst breeding on the Islands. Waders have been ringed at Dawlish Warren, especially focusing on Oystercatchers, since the 1980s with a restart in 2020. Colour marked Oystercatchers allowed researchers to identify different cohorts of birds with different feeding mechanisms, and how the population uses the estuary; which, in turn, has enabled conservation measures to be put in place.

Passerines as small as Firecrest and Chiffchaff can be fitted with colour rings, however in the field, careful scrutiny is needed to be able to read the colour combinations. In Devon, Chiffchaffs have shown winter site fidelity to places such as our reserve at South Milton Ley where a combination of the reedbeds and the water treatment plant provides sheltered habitats with good insect supplies during the winter, while Blackcaps fitted with colour rings have revealed that the British wintering population comes mostly from central Europe. This may point to a change in migration and survival strategies possibly in response to climate change.

The BTO encourages ringers to undertake species specific projects that use colour marking to enhance the research. The Retrapping Adults for Survival (RAS) project was started in 1999 and is now a national standardised ringing programme. Ringers attempt to monitor a population of a single species during breeding seasons fitting different colour combinations or re-sight previously colour ringed individuals at least 50 adult birds in a well-defined study area adding greater focus to the project.  the data gathered provides an effective way to study of adult survival rates and birds is useful to determine aspects such as adult survival rates and breeding dispersal. The RAS Scheme is particularly useful as it targets those species not widely covered by other national projects or general mist netting.

How to report colour rings and other marks

There are various websites which will tell you what information to record and how to report it. These will enable you to find the correct scheme and contact the ringer directly:


If you do see and report a colour ringed bird direct online, please remember to let the Devon Bird Recorder (email: recorder@devonbirds.org) or Mr N Ward, ringing@devonbirds.org the Ringing Secretary know the results as the details will only be sent to you by the ringer or ringing organisation!

Colour marking projects in Devon

There are several colour ringing projects currently running in Devon but remember there are hundreds of projects running across the country and Europe so when out watching birds don’t forget to check out their legs and please report it to the BTO and here to our Ringing Secretary. Remember: Record all of the colour rings any engraved numbers or letters plus any other markers in a set order (top to bottom) and which leg they are on.

Below are some of the birds colour ringed in Devon to watch out for:

Species Location Ringer
Shelduck Axe estuary Axe Estuary Ringing Group
Dipper Rivers Avon, Erme, Plym, Dart, Yealm R Short
Pied Flycatcher Yarner M Burgess (One coloured metal ring)
Waders Dawlish Warren, Exminster Marshes and Taw / Torridge Devon and Cornwall Wader Ringing Group Devon and Cornwall Wader Ringing Group – Cannon netting (dcwrg.org.uk)
Wheatear Lundy T Taylor

Wood Warbler John Mallord Dartmoor 2012 Wood Warbler John Mallord Dartmoor 2012
Black-tailed Godwit Karen Woolley Axe Est Black-tailed Godwit Karen Woolley Axe Est
Ring Ouzel 2012 Nik Ward Dartmoor Ring Ouzel 2012 Nik Ward Dartmoor
Shelduck, Axe Est, Mike Tyler 2012 Shelduck, Axe Est, Mike Tyler 2012
Dipper R.Erme Bruce Church 12.5.13 Dipper R.Erme Bruce Church 12.5.13

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