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How Bird Banding Got Started. With a Fish.

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 5, 2012

Today’s the birthday of animal-banding, one of the most useful techniques for studying the movements and longevity of birds, sea turtles, and other creatures.

It started almost 800 years ago, with a fish and an emperor.

Frederick II, naturalist and Holy Roman Emperor

Frederick II von Hohenstaufen, the Holy Roman Emperor was a man of “insatiable curiosity” about “everything from astronomy to zoology, especially zoology,” according to Willy Ley’s Dawn of Zoology. Frederick was also probably the only person ever excommunicated three times by the Catholic Church.

Ley writes:

“A typical day in Frederick’s life included checking on edicts, correcting a translation from the Arabic made by one of his scholars, dissecting a bird, and dictating letters to Moslem rulers.  These letters are collectively known as the ‘Sicilian Questions’–they consisted of lists of questions, about things which the emperor wanted to know  ‘because my philosophers have no good answers to these questions.’  He repeatedly sent a diver–named Nicholas but called ichthys (the fish) to the bottom of the Strait of Messina to tell him what lived down there.  When a fisherman caught an exceptionally large pike, Frederick personally inserted an inscribed copper ring into its gills and set it free again to test how long large fishes might live …”

Like a name tag at a business meeting, the inscription on the ring attached to the fish said, “I am the fish.”  It was dated the “fifth day of October,” 1230.

Other sources give other dates.  For instance, a 1945 history of bird banding says the practice has roots in Ancient Rome:

“‘Quintus Fabius Pictor, who was born about 254 B.C., recorded in his ‘Annals’ that ‘When a Roman garrison was besieged by the Ligurians a swallow taken from her nestlings was brought to him for him to indicate by knots made on a thread tied to its foot how many days later help would arrive and a sortie must be made.’

But using birds for sending messages was never intended to tell us anything about the animals themselves.  Likewise,  marking of falcons by England’s King Henry IV and others was simply a way of declaring human ownership.

After Fredrick’s little experiment, banding does not seem to have been used for scientific study until the nineteenth century.  Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about the practice (known as “bird-ringing” in the UK):

Storks injured by arrows (termed as pfeilstorch in German) traceable to African tribes were found in Germany in 1822 and constituted some of the earliest evidence of long distance migration in European birds.[5]Ringing of birds for scientific purposes was started in 1899 by Hans Christian Cornelius Mortensen, a Danish schoolteacher. He used zinc rings on European Starlings. The first banding scheme was established in Germany by Johannes Thienemann in 1903 at the Rossitten Bird Observatory on the Baltic Coast of East Prussia. This was followed by Hungary in 1908, Great Britain in 1909 (by Arthur Landsborough Thomson in Aberdeen and Harry Witherby in England), Yugoslavia in 1910 and the Scandinavian countries between 1911 and 1914.[6] In North America / brighton John James Audubon and Ernest Thompson Seton were pioneers although their method of marking birds was different from modern ringing. Audubon tied silver threads onto the legs of young Eastern Phoebes in 1803 while Seton marked Snow Buntings in Manitoba with ink in 1882.[7]

In fairness, I should add one quibble about the Emperor Frederick’s innovative science:  The pike he tagged in 1230 was eventually reported to have been recaptured–in 1497, almost 250 years later.

If readers have more realistic figures from modern bird banding, for long distance travel, longevity, or other superlatives, please add them in the comments.


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