Bird ringing (banding) in South Africa – a short history

Hans Mortensen - first to use bird ringing for science
Hans Mortensen – first to use bird ringing for science

Bird ringing (banding) was invented by a citizen scientist. In 1899, a Danish school teacher began the concept of bird ringing using rings with unique numbers and a return address. He made most of his bird rings himself, cutting them from aluminium sheet and stamping each with an address and an individual number. Aluminium had recently become available commercially for the first time. Since this 1899 technological advance, bird ringing has become a vital tool in ornithological research the world over.

Within two decades most European countries had started a bird ringing scheme: the first was Germany in 1903 at the Rossitten Bird Observatory, followed by Hungary in 1908, Great Britain in 1909, Yugoslavia in 1910 and the Scandinavian countries between 1911 and 1914. White Storks were a popular target as these birds nested on chimneys where the young could be ringed. Herons, gulls and ducks were also ringed.

First stork recovery in South Africa, 1909
First stork recovery, in 1909

As a result of these schemes earlier efforts, we have many retrap / recovery records dating back to the early 1900s. The earliest record in our system dates back to 1909 where a White Stork ring was recovered after being shot in KwaZulu-Natal. It had a Hungarian ring, 209, which had been put on the stork chick in Romania in the previous year. This was the first scientific evidence of a migrant crossing the equator.

Following this recovery there were many more White Stork ring sightings over the following years (Ring: VIB00198 in 1911 from Denmark, Ring: 287 in 1910 from Hungary, Ring: 2199 in 1910 from Hungary, Ring: 2298 in 1909 from Romania). The first sighting of a bird ringed in Britain was a swallow seen in 1911 (Ring: B830).

First ringing session in South Africa
First ringing session, in 1948

Bird ringing in South Africa started in 1948 when the Southern African Ornithological Society (SAOS) initiated a bird ringing scheme under the leadership of Dr EH Ashton. The first birds to be ringed were 31 Cape Vultures Gyps coprotheres, ringed on 1 August 1948 at Kranzberg by a team of birders and mountaineers. A year later one of these, ring C00086 was found near Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, the first recovery of a southern African bird ring.

The early years – Dr Hugh Ashton

Dr Hugh Ashton from the Witwaterstrand Bird Club played a big part in the early development of SAFRING and he coordinated the scheme until 1 July 1956. During this time he authored the first six bird ringing reports.

From the first bird ringing session where simple numeric rings (produced by the SA mint) were used, the scheme quickly developed and established itself at the Zoological Gardens in Pretoria. This led to the use of “INFORM ZOO PRETORIA” ring inscription which can still be seen today on some of the larger rings.

Pretoria ring
Example of a Pretoria ring

The early years – Dr Geoffrey Roy McLachlan

After Dr Hugh Ashton retired his position in 1956, Dr Geoffrey Roy McLachlan took over the reins of SAFRING. After an initial trial period, where the treasurer, Mr Heard, and Dr McLachlan worked through correspondence, the whole scheme was relocated to Port Elizabeth. Dr McLachlan had his work cut out for him, as a number of problems arose with the growing bird ringing dataset. Some of these problems included; data storage, data submissions and costs of bird ringing. One of the drastic moves he made to improve data submissions, was to drive across the country visiting all bird ringing hot-spots to help ringers in person. During his time as coordinator he authored eight bird ringing reports, as well as many papers, and a ten year summary of bird ringing. He is also known for the first revisions of the well known book, Roberts’ Birds of South Africa (2nd, 3rd and 4th editions).

PAOC 1964
PAOC in 1964, including Dr McLachlan

Dr GR McLachlan
left the Ringing Unit at the end of 1966 to pursue other projects and
passed away at age 81 on January 17th 2005.

The early years – Sir Clive C.H. Elliott

After Dr Geoffrey Roy McLachlan moved from the Museum in Port Elizabeth in 1966, it was decided that the Ringing Scheme be handed over to a larger organisation with proper funding and staff. As a result the entire scheme was moved to the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology at the University of Cape Town.

The scheme was still administered by the South African Ornithological Society (SAOS – Now BirdLife South Africa) until 1972 when the first full time coordinator was employed, Dr Clive Elliott. With this new leadership the Scheme was renamed the National Unit for Bird-Ringing Administration (NUBRA).

SAFRING News cover
First Safring News cover

This new unit struggled initially as the bird ringing data had been neglected over the previous five years. It soon made some great steps forward and one of the great improvements Clive made was the creation of “SAFRING News”. In the first editorial entitled “Overcoming Isolation” Clive details the need for communication between ringers (to share knowledge, techniques, downfalls and interesting observations) and thus emphasising the need for such a magazine (written for the ringers, by the ringers). During his time at NUBRA Clive authored (along with Mike Jarvis) three Annual Reports (the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth). Although he only stayed for three years he was able to achieve a lot for SAFRING, in addition to completing his PhD (using ringed Cape Weavers) in 1973.

The early years – Dr Carl J. Vernon

With Sir Clive Elliott leaving the NUBRA in 1974 to work for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the post for Bird Ringing Coordinator was once again opened. As a result Dr Carl J. Vernon took the post in 1975. At the time the Ringing Scheme was still hosted by the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology.

First ringing conference in South Africa
First ringing conference

One of the big projects Carl took over from Clive was the computerisation of bird ringing data onto Hollerith cards (punch cards). A keen ringer and friend, Dr Steven Piper (founder of the Steven Piper SAFRING Trust), assisted in this, although all did not go to plan as mass corrections were implemented incorrectly. Carl has a noted interest in shorebirds which can be seen in the topics chosen for the SAFRING News articles during his term. Additionally Carl put a lot of effort in promoting colour bird ringing as a means of improving the resighting counts, and authored three Annual Reports (the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth). During his term at the ringing unit, the First National Ringing Conference was held in Gauteng.

Carl was then offered the post as ornithologist at the East London Museum and left in 1976.

The middle years – Patrick D. Morant

After Carl Vernon took up the post as ornithologist at the East London Museum, NUBRA (National Unit for Bird-Ringing Administration), now known as SAFRING (South African Bird Ringing Unit), stood leaderless once again. With this opening Patrick Morant (an MSc Student) was found to coordinate the Unit (with help from John Ledger). One of the first problems Patrick identified was the lack of communication between the amateurs and the professional ornithologists. As a result, one of his goals was to bridge this gap in what he called “Let’s communicate ’78′”. Continuing with this mantra he encouraged amateur ringers to send in their ideas and observations for the SAFRING News letter, in his Editorial – Write It Up! In addition to this sharing of knowledge through newsletters he also discussed the requirements around the sharing of bird ringing data and potential use thereof.

This was not a permanent post (still housed at the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology) and Patrick left in 1981 to pursue other projects in Estuarine Ecology. During his stay Patrick authored three Annual Reports (the twentieth, twenty-first and twenty-second).

Patrick Morant
Pat Morant

Recent years – Dr Terry Oatley

Terry Oatley's book on robins
Terry Oatley book on robins

Terry Oatley spent 22 years working in conservation in the Natal Parks Board. He was passionate about studying robins, and published a book and many papers on this group, as well as on forest birds, bird ringing and other topics. In December 1980 he moved to the Western Cape to take up the position of bird ringing organiser for the South African Bird-ringing Unit (SAFRING) at the University of Cape Town, where he remained until his retirement in 1997. In 1993, while he was at SAFRING, Terry was awarded his PhD by University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) for his work on the Ground Woodpecker. Following his retirement, in 1998 he was awarded the Gill Memorial Medal in recognition of his outstanding contribution to ornithology in the southern African region.

While Terry was in charge of SAFRING, the unit was moved to the newly-formed Avian Demography Unit in 1991 (later Animal Demography Unit). The ADU was formed to take over the first Southern African Bird Atlas Project, with many other projects being added later.

Recent years – Dr Hans-Dieter Oschadleus

Dieter’s first task at SAFRING when he started in 1998 was to upgrade all the recovery data to modern PC from the mainframe system. Later Dieter obtained funding for interns to computerise all original bird ringing data that was available (some data was never submitted, some paper records were lost in the many times that SAFRING moved institution or even building). Dieter also ran many bird ringing training courses, both nationally and internationally (in Africa), and conducts citizen science research through his weaver research and via the Virtual Museum. Dieter currently leads bird ringing expeditions in South Africa as part of the Biodiversity and Development Institute.