Birds do not have passports, but when several were stranded in Kenya, we knew the countries they had come from. How did we know that? Some wild birds do carry a form of identification with them.
A little-known fact is that Kenya is the number one country in Africa for sightings of migratory birds, and sixth in the world. Birdwatchers from all over the world come here hoping to get a glimpse of as many of them as possible.
“We have got one of the richest diversities of birds that you can easily see anywhere in the world. Birdwatchers come from all over the world to Kenya specifically because, in a three or four-week safari, you can get over 700 species of birds,” says Colin Jackson, an expert in birds and the national director of A Rocha Kenya.
One of the birds that caused a stir among Kenyans in the last three years was an osprey that had flown 7,000 kilometres from Finland and was found in Kisumu. It sadly died of what Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) determined was long-term starvation and massive organ failure.
Two more were storks that had travelled from Poland. They were found by locals having been electrocuted – one in Kitale in 2021 and another one in Nandi County in January this year.
Each of the three birds had a metal ring on its leg that indicated where exactly they had come from. The rings are placed on the legs of the birds using a process called bird-ringing.
This was done in the countries they originated from, but bird ringing is also done here in Kenya.
One of the people who do it in Kenya is Colin Jackson, who was born and brought up in the country and has a PhD in Bird Migration and Moult studies. He has done bird ringing for close to 40 years.
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“Bird ringing is the practice of catching birds to put a small, numbered metal ring on the leg, normally with the address of the ringing scheme for the country where it’s being done.
“If that bird is found in another location, the person who finds it can report the number on the ring, the location where the bird is found, the date where they found it and send that information back. In our case, they would send it to the National Museums of Kenya, the bird department,” he says.
To ring the birds, you have to catch them first. There are several ways of doing this. One of them is using mist nets, which are fine netting that is placed where birds are flying. The net catches the birds, and then Jackson and other ringers like him remove them carefully without injuring them.
“Then we put these rings on the bird,” he says, holding up a piece of metal. “There are different-sized rings for different-sized birds. The ring has the address of the museum on it.
“It says, ‘Inform museum Nairobi’ and then a number. The combination of the address and the number on it makes that ring unique in the world. So other teams may have the same number, but they would say Paris or London or Cape Town.”
The ring is placed using special pliers that are designed only for ringing, and it has different holes for different ring sizes. Once the ring is placed, most of the birds, which are usually over 1,000 caught in one night, are released immediately, what the ringers refer to as ‘Ring and fling’.
They sample some individual birds and note down their age, weight, wing length, head length, sex, migratory fat under the skin and more, then transfer the information to a database so that it can be analysed more easily.
They also check the moults and record them. Moulting is the shedding of old feathers to make way for new feathers. Recording this information helps them understand when and how birds moult, enabling them to understand their biology a bit better.
“You can see the impact of climate change on them because as the climate is changing, conditions are changing and the birds are tending to moult either earlier or later because sometimes birds require particular conditions to moult.
“That can impact their survival because molting is quite an energy-expensive activity for them and if the food available is not enough then that can also impact them,” says Jackson.
“Particularly migrants, for example, migrant waders like sandpipers and plovers, for them to moult their large primary feathers is quite an energy-expensive activity. We have found that they moult on Mida Creek in Watamu, for instance, so that is an important site for them that will need to be protected.”
After the bird is ringed, it is released and the bird can go on its merry way. If someone one day happens to come across that particular bird, they will be able to report back using the information on the ring.
What is the purpose of bird ringing? As Jackson explains, from a bird in the hand, you can get a lot of information about that species that is very hard to get from just looking at them, watching them in the field and counting them. It also helps us learn about their population size.
“It is because of bird ringing that we know about birds’ migration. Where they go to, where they come from, how long they take, how long they live for, whether they always return to the same place or not,” says Jackson.
“We know that a bird that breeds in a particular tree in Siberia in Russia will fly to Southern Africa and then return to the very same tree where it bred last year. So we have discovered an incredible wonder of what birds do, how they live and the capacity they have for travelling vast distances and yet returning and navigating so amazingly well.”
Bird ringing has been done for centuries around the world, but doing it for scientific purposes began in the early 1900s. In Kenya, it began in the 1960s.
Bird migration is a phenomenon of nature that brings birdwatchers and bird-ringers to Kenya. Bird ringing is done in several places, but one of the oldest and most prominent bird-ringing locations has been at Ngulia Safari Lodge.
Bird ringing has been done there since 1969 after scientists realised that birds travelling south from Europe over Tsavo National Park, an ecosystem that is crucial for the migration of birds, were attracted by the lights at the lodge every year in November and December.
Guests can watch and even ring the birds and release them, which turns out to be the highlight of the safari and activity that children love. At Ngulia they will usually catch and ring over 1,000 birds in a day, sometimes two, three thousand and more.
“More than half a million birds have been ringed in Ngulia. From that, we have had over 294 plus recoveries. That means birds that we have caught with a ring from overseas or birds of our own which have been found and reported from other countries. That recovery list now includes 45 different countries in Europe, the Middle East and Africa,” says Jackson.
He advises that if you find a bird with a ring on it, report it to the museum telling them the date it was found and the location, and ideally send the ring if you can.
“We do not need the bird itself, just the ring if the bird is dead. If the bird is alive, then just record the number very carefully on a paper and let the bird go and send us that information,” he says. “We will write back to you and tell you where that bird was ringed, how far it has travelled, how many years it has lived and so on.”
The ringing scheme address is [email protected]. You can send any information you want or queries about ringing, and the ringing coordinators will get back to you about the birds you have found or questions you have.