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Highlights from 2020: Bird Bandings and Encounters

February 24, 2021

An overview of the USGS Bird Banding Laboratory’s successes in collection and curation of bird banding data in the last year, featuring some of the remarkable bird bandings, recaptures, and encounters from 2020.

In 2020, the Bird Banding Laboratory reached an impressive milestone celebrating its 100-year anniversary. For a century, the BBL in collaboration with the Bird Banding Office of the Environment and Climate Change Canada, has administered the North American Bird Banding Program and maintained a database of over 77 million records of banded birds and 5 million encounters of those banded birds. In 2020 alone, the NABBP received over a half a million banding records and almost 80,000 encounters of previously banded birds (see Figure 1 and 2). In comparison, in 2019 over 900,000 birds were banded. This reduction in banding data received at the lab is a consequence of reduced efforts likely due to COVID-19 restrictions that limited large gatherings of people throughout the year. Regardless of these limitations, average of band encounter reports were similar between 2019 (90,000) and 2020 (87,000) (see Figure 2). Luckily, outdoor and birdwatching activities in 2020 still continued despite COVD restrictions, allowing people to search for, find, and report banded birds. 

Birds banded, recaptured, and encountered per month for 2020 and 2019
Birds banded, recaptured, and encountered per month for 2020 and 2019
Figure 1 & 2. The total number of birds banded, recaptured, and encountered per month for 2020 and 2019 (data submitted to the BBL as of 2/12/2021). “Banded” refers to when a bird receives its unique federal band from a permitted bander. An “encounter” is any observation of a previously-banded bird, of which “recapture” is a special case where the bird is captured by a permitted bander, either the person who originally banded the bird or someone else. (Public domain.)

Below we highlight a few unique banding and encounter records from 2020, showcasing another great year for data about banded birds!

Unique Bandings

A side view of the head to show the unique characteristics of this hybrid
(Courtesy: Jeff Kozma)
A top view of the head to show the unique characteristics of this hybrid
(Courtesy: Jeff Kozma)

BBL’s first record of a Golden-crowned Sparrow (GCSP) X White-throated Sparrow (WTSP) hybrid banded in Washington State, U.S. The bander, Jeff Kozma noted “When I caught the bird in question, I immediately saw the yellow lores (WTSP identifying mark) but noticed the other head markings were unusual. The throat had the faint "white throat markings" of a WTSP, but lacked the white eye-stripe of a WTSP.  Then, I noticed the small patch of yellow feathers on top of the head between the 2 thin black head stripes.  It was this yellow head marking, that is absent in WTSP but present in GCSP, that made me realize this was probably a hybrid GCSP x WTSP because the bird was exhibiting plumage characteristics of both species.” 

In 2020, the Bird Banding Lab added its first record of a hybrid Golden-crowned Sparrow and White-throated Sparrow to its database. Birdwatchers have previously reported sightings of Golden-crowned Sparrow X White-throated Sparrow hybrids. However, this is the first individual observed in the hand and able to be confirmed via genetic testing of a feather sample collected under an authorized banding permit. Using feathers for genetic testing is a non-invasive technique, and gives scientists insight on hybridization,

Grosbeak wings extended to show the difference between the male vs female side
The unique Rose-breasted Grosbeak pictured displays male characteristics on the bird’s right side and female characteristics are on the bird’s left side, a trait known as bilateral gynandromorphy. Male grosbeaks are dark black with a striking rosy breast and feathers under the wing (known as underwing coverts), while female grosbeaks are brown, with yellow/orange underwing coverts. (Courtesy: Annie Lindsay | Powdermill Nature Reserve, Carnegie Museum of Natural History.)





Last fall, a unique Rose-breasted Grosbeak took the internet by a storm. This bird was banded at the Powdermill Nature Reserve, Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pennsylvania, U.S., and displayed bilateral gynandromorphy, a trait where an individual has both male and female characteristics, one on each side. This extremely rare condition has been documented in insects, snakes, crustaceans, and birds, including Northern Cardinals in Illinois and Pennsylvania.

These are excellent examples of how banding is an indispensable technique for researchers. The BBL helps coordinate and document changes over time, and what is “unusual” now may become more common in the future decades. We will only know for sure by continuing to maintain this long-term database. Now we wait, in hopes that these individuals will be recaptured or otherwise encountered again in the future.  






Exceptional Movements & New Longevity Records

Encounters and recaptures occur when a banded bird is re-encountered later on in its life after it was originally banded. Scientists gain valuable information such as a the bird’s movement and lifespan through analysis of encounter and recapture data, giving us a better understanding of bird populations. Amongst the encounter data in 2020, the Bird Banding Lab had several confirmed encounters of exceptional movements and several new longevity records.

Exceptional Movements

A map showing the ~4,800 miles of distance between where the Arctic Tern was banded in Maine to Ghana, Africa
Map of Arctic Tern banded in Maine and encountered in Ghana, Africa (Map from Google Earth Pro.)  (Public domain.)



In August 2020, a banded Arctic Tern was recaptured in Ghana, Africa, roughly 4,800 miles away from where it was originally banded in Maine in July 2017 (see map at right). Arctic Terns are known for their amazing migrations, making annual journeys from their breeding grounds on the Arctic, to their wintering grounds on the Antarctic, and back again, flying around 25,000 miles each year! This is the 12th record of an Arctic Tern moving from North America to Africa that the lab has documented since 1928.

A Plover on the beach with visual ID red, white, and blue color bands
This Semipalmated Plover is the BBL’s fourth record of a banded bird being encountered in the Galapagos Islands. Colored leg bands help identify  individual birds from afar without having to read the federal band number. (Courtesy: David Bell)
Migration of the Semipalmated Plover
 Migration of the Semipalmated Plover, that was the BBL’s fourth encountered individual on the Galapagos Islands. (Public domain.)

Traveling roughly 5,000 miles away from its breeding grounds in Alaska, this Semipalmated Plover is the lab’s fourth record of a North American banded bird encountered in the Galapagos, Ecuador.  Semipalmated Plovers will occasionally stomp or shuffle, to encourage small critters, such as insects, crustaceans, and worms, to give away their hiding spot ( The other encounters documented by the BBL of a bird moving between North American and the Galapagos are a Laughing Gull banded in Virginia, a Sanderling banded in Oregon, and a Rufa Red Knot banded in Louisiana.

Longevity Records

Along with amazing movements, several longevity records were broken in 2020, including the Collard Kingfisher, Common Loon, Common Eider, and Laysan Albatross. Want to learn the longevity record for your favorite bird? Explore more of our longevity records.

A Collard Kingfisher in the hand
This stunning Collard Kingfisher was 13 years old when she was recaptured. (Courtesy: Randy Harper)



While banders don’t always know how old a bird is when it is originally captured, they are usually able to distinguish whether it was hatched that year or in a previous year by examining visible characteristics like feather shape, wear, or color. As a result, banders will often report birds as “hatch year” or “after hatch year.” This Collard Kingfisher was banded on Saipan Marian Island, as an after hatch year in May 2008. This kingfisher was reported alive in April 2020, making this kingfisher at least 13 years old, beating our previous kingfisher longevity record by 8 years. The BBL has five species of kingfisher in its database, despite only three species occurring in North and Central America. The other two kingfisher species occur on the Mariana Islands, including Guam and Saipan, which are U.S. commonwealth islands in the Pacific Ocean and thus under the purview of the Bird Banding Lab’s permitting authority.

Banded Common Loon parent swimming with his two chicks
This 31-year loon dad raised two chicks in 2017. The longevity record setter Common Loon with unique red and green visual ID bands in the water with his two chicks. (Courtesy: Teresa McGill)










Common Loons are known to have long lifespans, with the previous longevity record of a banded loon being 25 years. In 2020, banding records have now confirmed a record of 31 years! Common Loon parents are extremely protective of their young, even attacking predatory Bald Eagles for the safety of their chicks. 


A female Common Eider with a crab in her bill
In 2020 the BBL set a new longevity record for eiders, documenting a recovery of hen (female bird) that was over 27 years old. Pictured is a female Common Eider with a crab in her bill. (Courtesy: Kyra Harvey, USGS - Eastern Ecological Science Center. Public domain.)











One exceptional Common Eider was among the 180 encounters for this species reported in 2020. This eider was more than 27 years old, breaking the previous record of 22 years and 7 months. Recently, BBL hosted USFWS Pam Garrettson to discuss the importance of waterfowl banding and hunting, in conservation and management.

Wisdom, a Laysan albatross and the oldest known banded bird in the wild, with one of her chicks, named Kūkini. (Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.)













Last, but not least, the oldest banded bird is back at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge for another breeding season! Wisdom the Laysan Albatross and her partner Akeakami have laid eggs since 2006 and have been reported to be incubating another egg as of December 3, 2020. Wisdom has laid 30-35 eggs in her lifetime and is at least 70 years old! Laysan Albatrosses spend their nonbreeding months wandering the Pacific Ocean, returning to land only to breed.

Overall, the BBL’s database would not be where it is today without its banders and community scientists. If you happen to find a banded bird, please report it to us at

In addition, if you want to find out more information on the data collected by the BBL, you can submit a data request by following the instructions here.

Here at the Bird Banding Laboratory we are excited to see what new bird banding, recapture, and encounter data 2021 will bring.