Bird ringing

Ringing is an important tool in bird migration research, since it provides information on the migratory routes of various species, the rest and overwintering areas they use and their migration speeds. In addition to migration research, ringing is an indispensable research method for several other areas of ornithology.

Data produced by ringing is used in basic research, such as population ecology, evolutionary research and ethology. Applied research also uses ringing as a tool. 

In Finland, catching and ringing birds are activities regulated by the Nature Conservation Act (1096/1996) and the Hunting Act (615/1993).

Why are birds ringed?

Ringing provides information on, for example, the age, mortality and causes of death of birds, hatching site, site and mate fidelity, annual population changes, the lifetime offspring yield of individuals and the heritability of different characteristics, flock social hierarchy, and the range and exploitation of an individual bird's environment. The information produced by ringing also promotes bird conservation.

One of the most recent uses of the ringing events is environmental education. At least some bird observatories in the USA, Sweden and Lithuania provide the general public with opportunities to follow ringing along with a healthy dose of information on nature and environmental protection. Based on the experiences gained, the message of nature conservation becomes much easier to understand when in direct contact with the objects of the protection efforts.

After the start of ringing activities in the early 1900s, ringing numbers initially increased slowly. It was not until the 1930s that annual numbers of over 10,000 ringed birds were reached, and 100,000 ringed birds was achieved in 1939. With the outbreak of the Second World War, ringing numbers collapsed once ringers had to take on duties of another sort. More recently, in the past twenty years, about 200,000 to 300,000 birds have been ringed in Finland each year, of which nestlings have accounted for about 40%.

Soon after the Second World War, ringing became rapidly increasingly popular: the limit of one million ringed birds was exceeded in 1966, three million in 1978, five million in June 1988 and ten million in May 2010. Between 1913 and 2022 over 13 million birds were marked with a unique identifier.

In recent years, the reasonably large variation between years in the number of ringed birds has been due not only to successful nesting but also to the rather random appearance of migratory birds, the number of ringers at bird observatories and changes in ringer activity: old projects have petered out and new ones have been launched.

The Ringing Centre handles around 40,000 ring recovery or control reports for Finnish rings annually. The overall number of reports entered in the recovery database for the years 1913–2022 is over 1.5 million.

The Finnish Ringing Centre coordinates bird ringing activities in Finland. The centre is responsible for, among other things, the maintenance of databases, the administration of ringing licences, ringer training, as well as the quality control of ringing work. The Ringing Centre orders and distributes the rings to ringers.

A key duty is the exchange of information within Finland and abroad and maintaining contacts with ringers, people recovering rings, international ringing centres, European Union for Bird Ringing (EURING), researchers using the data, authorities, media and the general public. The Ringing Centre promotes research based on ringing by publishing summaries and analyses of ringing and recovery data.

From the beginning, ringing in Finland has been based on voluntary work. The Finnish Museum of Natural History is responsible only for the salaries of the Ringing Centre staff, and the acquisition of rings. Consequently, in addition to travel expenses, ringers are personally responsible for the acquisition of the required literature, climbing equipment, protective headgear, safety harnesses, scales, measuring equipment, bird nets and other trapping gear.

The annual number of active ringers has increased from the twenty-ish in the early days to over 700 active ringers today. The share of women in ringing is continuously increasing and was 16% at the beginning of 2021. During its first decades, ringing was mostly the privilege of university graduates and students but nowadays, the professional backgrounds of ringers vary greatly: all bird enthusiasts who have proved their proficiency and suitability to ringing activities are welcome join the efforts. Today’s Finnish bird ringers are qualified and committed experts in bird life.

Using the right ring size and type is an absolute requirement in ringing. In Finland, a total of 26 ring sizes of differing diameter are in use, but in all there are 36 different ring types. The majority of rings are made of aluminium. Steel and even harder alloys are used only for bird species (e.g., auks and gulls), on whose legs an aluminium ring would last only a few years. In addition to the metal ring, birds can, in special studies and by separate permit, be fitted with extra identifiers such as coloured leg or neck rings.

In addition to the return address, all rings are inscribed with an individual identifier (ring number). The identifier includes no more than two letters, which define the type of ring; the rest are running numbers. The return address in Finnish rings is inscribed in its Latin form. Consequently, instead of ‘zoological museum’ the largest rings say MUSEUM ZOOLOG, HELSINKI, FINLAND or MUS.ZOOL, HELSINKI, FINLAND, while only MUS.Z.HKI, FINLAND fits the smallest rings.

Guidelines and forms for ringers can be found in Finnish in the Luomus databank:

Bird ringing licences

The scope of bird ringing licences varies according to the needs of the ringer and the Ringing Centre. The main licence types are a nestling licence and net ringing licence. Applicants for a new bird ringing licence must

  • Be over 18 years of age
  • Have trained in ringing and bird-handling in practice as an assistant to an experienced ringer and received an approved certificate for their training
  • Have completed an approved basic examination that tests their ability to identify species nesting regularly in Finland and the most abundant passage migrants
  • Have submitted an acceptable ringing plan
  • Be committed to ethical, legal and bird safety guidelines
Ringing Centre contact details

Email address: 

+358 2941 28786, phone service hours Tue 13.00–15.00, Wed 14.00–16.00 and Thu 13.00–15.00. At other times, the best way to contact the Centre is by email. Ring recoveries should primarily be reported using the report form for ring recoveries.

Postal address:
Ringing Centre
Finnish Museum of Natural History Luomus
PO Box 17 (Pohjoinen Rautatiekatu 13)
00014 University of Helsinki