Wood Warbler John Mallord Dartmoor 2012

Black-tailed Godwit Karen Woolley Axe Est

Ring Ouzel 2012 Nik Ward Dartmoor
   Shelduck, Axe Est, Mike Tyler 2012

Dipper R.Erme Bruce Church 12.5.13

RingingColour Ringing

Bird ringing started in Britain and Ireland in 1909. Initially there were schemes which combined under the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) in 1937. Since 1909 some 900,000 birds have been ringed each year by 2600 ringers. The British Ringing scheme is organized by the BTO who have their offices in Thetford, Norfolk.

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.

Colour ringing allowing individual birds to be recognised in the field, has helped uncover many interesting life stories. This additional layer of knowledge helps provide a better understanding of birdr ecology and, in turn, the information can be used to identify and implement conservation measures to help manage their populations.

Although colour ringing has been around for a long time, it has become increasingly popular over the last 30 years and is now a commonly used method of monitoring bird 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 colour ringed?

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

Waders and gulls are particularly suited to colour ringing; 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. At Dawlish Warren, ringing of waders, especially Oystercatchers, was carried out in the 1980s. Oystercatchers were colour ringed. This allowed researchers to identify different feeding mechanisms, and showed how the population used the estuary; this, in turn, has enabled conservation measures to be put in place.

Passerines as small as Firecrests 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 South Milton Ley, while Blackcaps fitted with colour rings have revealed that the British wintering population comes from central Europe. This may point to a change in migration and survival strategy possibly in response to climate change.    

The BTO is encouraging ringers to undertake species specific projects and use colour ringing to enhance the research. The Retrapping Adults for Survival (RAS) project was started in 1999 and is now a national standardised ringing programme. During a breeding season ringers attempt to catch or re-sight at least 50 adult birds of a single species in a well-defined study area.  If for example 50 individuals are ringed with 50 different colour combinations then field work is more focused. The project is therefore more efficient and effective in the study of birds and the data gathered is useful to determine adult survival rates. The RAS Scheme is particularly useful as it targets and identifies those species not widely covered by other national projects.                                                                                                              

What are colour rings made of?

Colour rings can be made of two types of material. Plastic split rings are cheap and easy to fit but are probably best used for short term projects such as those on Pied / White Wagtails whilst Darvic (PVC sheeting) are more durable and will last for much longer and therefore can be used on a wider range of species such as Mute Swan that live in or forage in aquatic habitats or are exposed to hot sunny condition.

In addition to colour rings other markers such as neck collars (i.e. geese and swans) and wing tags (i.e. birds of prey) are also used on certain species

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 sheme and contact the ringer directly:

  • European Colour Ring Birding – identify different projects going on across Europe.
  • Wader Study Group - identify wader ringing projects.
  • If you cannot find the scheme these links may help:
  • Waders - sightings@waderstudygroup.org
  • Others - EURING Colour Mark Recovery Form
  • More information on ring types can be found at EURING Ring Types

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, 36 Shaftesbury Rd, Exeter, EX2 9BR the Ringing Secretary know the results as the details will only be sent to you by the ringer or ringing organisation!

Below are some of the birds colour ringed in Devon





Axe estuary

Axe Estuary Ringing Group

Barn Owl

Entire County

Barn Owl Trust

Wood Warbler

Woodlands mostly on Dartmoor

M Burgess


Tipton St John

I A  Stanbridge


Rivers Avon, Erme, Plym, Dart, Yealm

R Short

Ring Ouzel

Various sites on Dartmoor

N Ward/N Baker


Three sites on Dartmoor

R Short

Pied Flycatcher


M Burgess (One coloured metal ring)

Pied wagtail

Slapton Ley

D Elphick (final year 2012 but potential for sightings still)

Rock Pipit

Sites along the South Devon coast

D Scott


Three sites in South Devon

R Short



T Taylor

Colour ringing projects in Devon

There are 12 colour ringing project currently running in Devon but remember there are hundreds of projects running across the country and Europe so when out looking at birds don’t forget to check out their legs and pleasereport it to the BTO and here to our Ringing Secretary. Remember: Record all rings and other markers in a set order (top to bottom) and which leg they are on.