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IWSG Banner. Photos by Jan van der Kam and Simon Gillings

Types of colour marks

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Depending on the type of study and species involved, waders can be identified with a number of different types of marks. The commonest types of marks used are colour-marks (usually Colour-rings or Flags) that are fitted onto the bird's legs. These marks are permanent and are intended to remain on the bird throughout its life. Other marks can be temporary, such as colour-dye and temporary leg marks.

Both Colour-rings and Flags can be used separately or together and can either be plain or with inscriptions. The combinations of marks and colours used form Colour-marking Schemes that identify a bird to a particular project. The International Wader Study Group maintains a Colour-marking Register for projects in the East-Atlantic Flyway.

Colour-rings

a colour ringColour-rings are the commonest type of colour-mark currently in use. Colour-rings are made of plastic and are fitted around a bird's leg, similarly to a conventional metal ring.

Typically, more than one Colour-ring is used per bird, sometimes up to six. It is the position and colour of these rings that together make up a Colour-marking scheme. It is important to record both the colours and exact positions of the rings when recording Colour-rings. Colour-rings have been fitted to the Ruff in the photo to the right.

A range of standard colours are used and biologists planning to use Colour-rings should register with the Colour-marking Register. Each Colour-ring is a single colour and although stripped rings are available these are not recommended for use on waders because of the likelihood of confusion with other colours. For details on how to make Colour-rings, see making Colour-rings.

Inscribed Colour-rings

an inscribed colour ringInscribed Colour-rings are tend to be larger than conventional Colour-rings to enable the inscription to be read and are, therefore, usually only used on larger species of waders; for example, Oystercatcher, Avocet and Curlew. The inscriptions used can vary from one to four characters. Both letters and numbers are used and often a combination of both. Both normal and inscribed colour-rings have been fitted to the Oystercatcher in the photo to the right.

Inscribed Colour-rings might be used on their own although are often used in conjunction with conventional Colour-rings to make up a Colour-marking scheme. It is important to record both the colour of the ring and inscription as well as the actual code when recording Inscribed Colour-rings.

A range of standard colours are used and biologists planning to use Inscribed Colour-rings should register with the Colour-marking Register. Inscribed Colour-rings are made of layered plastic of two colours. The rings are made by machines that cut the shapes of the codes out of the upper layer so that the inscription is actually the colour of the underneath layer seen through the upper layer. Because of the special equipment needed to inscribe these rings, it may be best to buy them ready- or part- made. See Colour-mark Suppliers.

Flags

a colour flagFlags are similar to Colour-rings although have an additional 'tag' that extends out to one side of the ring part. They are made of the same plastic as conventional Colour-rings and are fitted onto a bird's leg.

Typically, only one Flag is used per bird, but nearly always in conjunction with Colour-rings. It is the position and colour of the Flag and rings that together make up a Colour-marking scheme. It is important to record both the colours and exact positions of the rings and Flag when recording Flags. The Ruff photo to the right shows a bird with a combination of rings and a red flag.

A range of standard colours are used and biologists planning to use Flags should register with the Colour-marking Register. For details on how to make Flags, see making Flags.

Inscribed flags

an inscribed colour flagFlags are similar to Colour-rings although have an additional 'tag' that extends out to one side of the ring part. The inscriptions used can vary from one to four characters. Both letters and numbers are used and often a combination of both.

Typically, only one Flag is used per bird, but nearly always in conjunction with Colour-rings. It is the position and colour of the Flag and rings, as well as the Flag Inscription, that together make up a Colour-marking scheme. It is important to record both the colours and exact positions of the Flag and any rings as well as the inscription when recording Inscribed Flags. The Knot in the photos to the right has an inscribed lime flag as well as normal colour-rings.

A range of standard colours are used and biologists planning to use Inscribed Flags should register with the Colour-marking Register. The inscription is often etched into the Flag by laser before being filled with ink, making the inscription much more durable than if simply written onto the surface of the plastic. Because of the special equipment needed to inscribe Flags properly, it may be best to buy them ready- or part- made. See Colour-mark Suppliers.

Temporary marks

Temporary marks include colour-dye and temporary leg marks. The colour-dye most commonly used is yellow (that can turn orange over time), although pink can also be used. The dye only colours the feathers of the bird and is, therefore, lost when the bird moults. Only part of the bird is marked, usually part of the breast or vent. Colour-dye is used for short-term studies where groups of birds need to be identified, rather than individuals. Occasionally, dye is used to increase the re-sighting of birds fitted with permanent colour-marks, although this is usually only in intensive studies.

The commonest temporary leg mark used is type of temporary leg-flag, which is made by wrapping a piece of coloured tape around the metal ring and leaving a short 'flag'. This tape eventually wears off, leaving just the metal ring. Temporary leg flags are used for short-term studies, such as looking at the fledging success of young birds. Biologists intending to use temporary leg-flags should consult the Colour-marking Register to reduce the risk of identical schemes running concurrently.

Metal rings

As a rule, all waders that are marked are first fitted with a metal ring. These metal rings are issued by National Ringing Schemes and carry a unique serial number as well as a return address. It is the metal ring that ultimately identifies a bird as an individual, if the metal ring can be read (either if through a telescope or if a bird is found dead) then the details should be submitted directly to the relevant National Ringing Scheme. You can also report a metal ring online.

In the past some waders have been marked with blank metal rings that form part of a Colour-marking scheme. These are usually recorded as a Grey ring, or 'S' in the codes of standard colours. Due to the possibility of confusion with scheme metal rings and Colour-rings, blank metal rings are not widely used.

Colour-rings or Colour-bands?

Colour-rings and colour-bands are in fact the same thing. In some parts of the world, such as Europe and Africa, the term 'rings' is used, whereas elsewhere the term 'bands' is used. On these pages we use the term 'ring'
Ruff with metal ring, white and blue colour-rings and a red flag. Click here to see enlarged and how to report. Ruff with colour flag and rings by Feike van der Leij
Red Knot with metal ring and lime flag inscribed 'UNK' and a blue colour-ring. Click here to see enlarged and how to report.Red Knot with colour flag and rings by Pat Leary
Oystercatcher with metal ring, red colour-ring and two inscribed rings. Oystercatcher with inscribed colour rings by Simon Gillings
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