The American Bird Banding Association was formed on December 8, 1909. At the annual meeting of the American Ornithological Union at the Hotel Endicott in New York City, Dr. Leon J. Cole presided over the formal establishment of the association, with 34 founding members, and became its first president. The purpose of the association was to conduct “…the banding of wild birds and the recording of accurate data on their movements.”
Cole, a Ph.D. trained geneticist, had been a bird enthusiast throughout his life (born 1877, died 1948). He began advocating for a systematic approach to bird banding beginning in 1901, in a paper published by the Michigan Academy of Sciences:
“It is possible such a plan might be used in following the movements of individual birds, if some way could be devised of numbering them which would not interfere with the bird in any way and would still be conspicuous enough to attract attention of any person who might chance to shoot or capture it.”
Birds had been banded in various ways for hundreds of years. Most accounts credit John James Audubon with the first recorded use of bands when he attached silver wire threads to the legs of fledgling Phoebes around 1800. However, no comprehensive plan for recording the data—both the origin of banded birds and the location of their recovery—existed. Under the guidance of Cole and the American Bird Banding Association, over 4000 bands were distributed to amateur birders in 1910—and the science of bird banding began. Today, Leon Cole is credited as the somewhat-forgotten father of American bird banding.
The American Bird Banding Association spurred the development of regional banding groups throughout the country. It remained the central organizer of bird banding until 1920, when the work was turned over to the U.S. Biological Survey. With the passage of the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the federal government took on the major responsibility for the health of bird populations—and had the greatest need for information about them. The work was entrusted to Frederick Lincoln, who oversaw the program from 1920 to 1946. Lincoln became famous for his genius as the architect of the modern bird-banding data management system. Today, the national coordination of bird banding resides in the Bird Banding Laboratory of the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, within the U.S. Geological Survey.
The most recent data provided by the Bird Banding Laboratory shows that over a fifty-year span from 1960-2010, 64 million birds have been banded following federal banding protocols. The lab has recorded more than 4 million records of banded birds being recaptured or sighted. Recently, more than 1 million birds have been banded and nearly 100,000 recoveries have been recorded annually.
Bird Banding Laboratory. A brief history about the origins of bird banding. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, U.S. Geological Survey. Available at: https://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/BBL/homepage/historyNew.cfm. Accessed December 7, 2016.
Cole, Leon J. 1910. The tagging of wild birds: Report of progress in 1909. The Auk 27(2):153-168. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/4071108.pdf. Accessed December 7, 2016.
McCabe, Robert A. 1979. Wisconsin’s forgotten ornithologist: Leon J. Cole. The Passenger Pigeon, Wisconsin Society for Ornithology 41(3):129-131. Available at: http://images.library.wisc.edu/EcoNatRes/EFacs/PassPigeon/ppv41no03/reference/econatres.pp41n03.rmccabe.pdf. Accessed December 7, 2016.
Wood, Harold B. 1945. The history of bird banding. The Auk 62(2):256-265. Available at: http://sora.unm.edu/sites/default/files/journals/auk/v062n02/p0256-p0265.pdf. Accessed December 7, 2016.