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How to: bird ringing in the UK with Jack Baddams

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Jack Baddams (pronouns: he/him) is a wildlife ecologist, science communicator and bird ringer – predominantly known for talking about birds. Jack has built his experience in bird ringing which he considered a springboard into paid work in the wildlife industry – and now works in nature television. Jack shares his knowledge on bird ringing in the UK and how you can get involved. He also shares his journey through the industry – and his advice on how to land your very own job as a passionate ecologist and bird nerd!

How to: bird ringing in the UK with Jack Baddams | #itsawildlife

JACK’S JOURNEY

“The legend in my family is that bird was my first word – but I’m not sure whether that’s true or not!”

Jack has been interested in birds and nature from a very young age, and that childhood passion never went away. Jack used to watch the birds hopping around outside the window and when his parents gave him a book on bird identification, there was no stopping him!

“It’s not like I can pinpoint a particular thing that sparked my passion for birds, rather for me it was just always there and I don’t remember a time where I didn’t like them.”

Jack had been watching birds for a long time, but when he was 16, he discovered the world of bird ringing and immediately signed up to start his training with a mentor in his village.

After high school, Jack did an undergraduate degree in zoology and began building his experiences. He worked seasonally and casually as a tour guide, always prioritising opportunities to build his experience as an ecologist when he could. But Jack credits his success in landing jobs to his experiences and his bird ringing license. Jack’s bird ringing license enabled him to run bird monitoring on scientific research expeditions to places like Indonesia, Madagascar and Honduras. This experience helped him to land a job for a big nature conservation charity that manages Sherwood Forest. And his experiences here led him to work in nature television.

“So now I work in nature TV but it all started with that bird ringing experience which gave me the springboard from which to build those other experiences.”

HOW TO GET INVOLVED WITH BIRD RINGING IN THE UK

Birds tend to be some of the most popular animals for people to engage with – they’re easily seen and they make pretty sounds but bird banding (or bird ringing as it’s known in the UK) is much more niche. Bird ringing is the process of catching birds and tagging them with small uniquely-numbered metal rings, that allow us to identify them as individuals.

In the UK, the bird ringing scheme is overseen by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), a scientific organisation that studies birds – but anyone can go to their website get involved with data collection – finding nests, taking part in their garden bird surveys or bird ringing.

If you are looking to get involved and start training to become a bird ringer, head to the find a trainer page on the BTO website, type in your postcode and it will reveal your nearest bird ringing trainers. From here, Jack explains it’s as simple as emailing them to register your interest –

“Anybody can start their journey to become a bird ringer – you don’t need to be scientifically trained and you can do it in your spare time. In the UK it’s a hobby that generates amazing scientific data.”

While the process is different in other countries, in the UK, as long as you have a current license and landowner’s permission, you can go out and ring wherever and whenever you want.

“So, we generate loads and loads of data. But, on the flip side of that, it can take between 2-3 years of dedicated practice to get your license as there’s a lot of training involved through mentorship.”

“It takes a lot longer to learn to ring birds than it does to drive a car, which I always find interesting!”

From a scientific perspective, ringing is fundamentally important for learning about birds as individuals – and it has been instrumental in discovering more about where birds go, how they grow up and what they do.

Jack uses swallows as an example – a bird that spends its summers in the UK but disappears in winter –

“Back in medieval times, people thought swallows hibernated at the bottoms of lakes in winter – and there’s amazing medieval drawings of people fishing for swallows and dragging them out of lakes. Of course, it’s all absolute nonsense, but it’s what people thought because nobody knew where they went.”

“Later, people observed swallows in the UK in summer, and then in South Africa over the winter, but they had no way of knowing whether they were the same birds without being able to identify individuals.”

Jack explains that one of the first times this happened was by observing White Storks which build giant platform nests on people’s houses in Germany and Spain in spring before disappearing over winter –

“On one occasion in Germany, a Stork arrived one spring with a spear lodged through its neck, still able to fly – and it started building a nest. As this was the 1700s, thanks to colonialism, people recognized this as an African spear – and it was one of the first times that people connected the dots and thought, where did the Storks go?

“People were excited by this African “tag” and of course in classic European style, it was shot, stuffed and mounted in a German museum – and today it’s known as the Arrow Stalk.”

Altogether, there were about nine records of White Storks arriving in Europe with African spears lodged in them over the years and Jack explains, bird ringing is a much less hardcore way of tagging individual birds so we know when and where they’re moving around!

Bird ringing involves putting small metal bracelets around the legs of birds – no more than the equivalent weight to us carrying our mobile phone in our pockets. Bird ringing is a powerful tool for discovering where birds go, how long they live and so much more.

“Even though we know a lot more now than we did in medieval times, we’re still learning about changing migration patterns of birds in the face of climate change from bird ringing.”

“Ultimately, it comes down to getting to know birds as individuals and being able to follow them throughout their lives or on their travels.”

SHARING THE LOVE FOR BIRDS

For Jack, sharing his birding and ringing experiences is a key part of what he does – be it on social media or through ringing demonstrations. He explains –

“I think the actual scientific work is just as important as communicating it – I think we need to be able to justify why ringing is important so people can understand the benefits it has.”

Jack loves social media as a platform for sharing this important scientific work – especially TikTok as he sees it as a tool to engage with a completely different audience, thanks to the algorithm –

“Instagram is great because there’s a lovely little nature community on there and most followers are of similar mind but TikTok is absolute chaos – I’ve made bird ringing videos that have been viewed 7 million times and thanks to the algorithm, it throws trending videos up in front of people that may never have considered birds before in their life – and all of a sudden I’m sticking one upside down in a pot to weigh it!”

“It puts bird ringing in front of a completely new audience and the comments are just phenomenal!”

One of the things Jack loves about bird ringing is the engagement opportunities it brings to talk about bird conservation – be it on social media, at public demonstrations or with landowners.

But when it comes to sharing, you need to be mindful about what you share and how you share it. These are some of Jack’s top tips for public engagement around bird ringing –

  • Bird welfare always comes first – photos second
  • Always consider how your photos and videos will be interpreted – avoid posting photos with feathers out-of-place, beaks open or wings flapping
  • Follow the BTO guidelines when sharing bird ringing content on social media
  • Plan your public demonstrations well and always work within your capacity

“I’ve caught some amazing species that I would’ve loved to have taken a picture of or made a video of, but perhaps it was a little bit too cold that morning to hold it longer. So, all we do is quickly put a ring on it, take measurements and then release it so it can carry on its day.”

“We know that bird ringing, through so many scientific studies, has no effect on birds whatsoever and we can catch the same birds again and again – but you have to be mindful that what you share on the internet will be interpreted by people who aren’t bird ringers and may be seeing it for the first time.”

CREATING A CAREER IN NATURE

With work in the conservation and wildlife space, Jack knows it can be incredibly competitive to find meaningful work, because so many people are so passionate about it. He explains –

“Speaking from my own experience, the more experience you can get outside of education, the better. I went to university and got an undergraduate degree in zoology, but that wasn’t what got me to where I am now. For me, it was getting up at dawn every Sunday morning to ring birds since I was 16 that helped me demonstrate my passion and dedication.”

And from a UK perspective, Jack feels lucky to be in a small country with lots of nature-lovers packed into it which has meant he was never too far away from opportunities to build his experience –

“You’re never too far away from somebody who is doing some sort of survey, looking at bats or ringing birds or sweep netting butterflies!”

For Jack, skills in animal handling and flora and fauna identification are some of the most important for becoming a successful ecologist. And to gain these, Jack maintains you don’t need a degree – rather, it’s all about getting outdoors in nature and observing what’s around you.

Higher education in particular can be a huge barrier to many people pursuing their passions to work in the field of wildlife conservation, because it’s such a competitive space and can be hard to get your foot in the door without that piece of paper. But opportunities like bird ringing allow people to approach nature from a different angle and demonstrate the importance of experience over qualification. Jack says –

“I would say, if you are passionate about nature and you know it’s your thing, don’t let it go!”

KEEP IN TOUCH

Want to hear more from Jack? Tune into the podcast to hear this conversation or follow his adventures on social media. Jack shares on Instagram @jabaddams and TikTok @jabaddams.

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