I’ll be honest, I got pretty angry last night about something to do with my work. The kind of anger that causes you to immediately boil up out of pure rage. It caught me by surprise but it was a reminder to me that I am passionate about my project and believe what I do is important.
It was brought to my attention that there is a YouTube video about dipper ringing. I will ABSOLUTELY not link to the video, and I FORBID any of you for looking it up because the content is utter tripe and I don’t think giving the owner more views is a productive thing to do. Basically the jist of the video is that one man in America, saw a dipper with a coloured ring stuck to the upper part of its leg which had swollen – obviously due to the ring getting caught.
That part of the video is correct and factual, however the guy then goes on to blame all dipper deaths on coloured rings. As though nothing else could be attributed to dippers dying; I can think of many reasons:
- the fact that they live in an ever changing environment with a less than stable food source
- the breeding season is very energetically demanding for a dipper and the cost of rearing chicks could depreciate the health of an individual
- visiting a nest with food multiple times a day makes tracking dippers very easy for predators so they could just get caught unawares when delivering food
He also says that dippers are really tame and friendly, and then as soon as they get caught for ringing they hate humans and won’t let you anywhere near, this is incorrect. All dippers or at the very least the ones I have encountered (probably in the hundreds), are very skittish birds that will flee at the slightest sound or movement. Whilst this is annoying for observational purposes, it is reassuring that the birds are vigilant and stay away from danger. The fact that this man thought that getting within a meter of dipper as a good thing is ludicrous, habituation to humans is bad news for any species.
The link to this video was on a Facebook page of some self-righteous twitcher (whose job was something to do with the aviation industry – BECAUSE NO BIRD HAS EVEN BEEN KILLED BY A PLANE). This twitcher in question was adamant there was no need for birds to be ringed and that everyone who was inflicting this “torture” on dippers was, in fact a monster. To top it off, he had used photos from my blog to illustrate the fact that it was happening all over the UK under our very eyes! He also commented on the way I was holding the bird in the photo as basically strangling it. I was in fact holding the bird the way I was taught during training, with no actual pressure around the birds throat or body just careful positioning of the fingers to prevent the bird from being able to fly away. Holding down a birds wings also prevents them from flapping and becoming increasingly stressed whilst being handled.
I was going to weigh in and give my opinion, but after reading various comments from a few ringers I could see that he was not to be reasoned with and putting a face to the name on my blog just seemed like I would be putting myself under unnecessary fire.
So for someone whose main part of her job is to observe dippers all day I need a way to tell one from another, all dippers look alike because they do not exhibit sexual dimorphism. My project aims to make scientific inferences about their song, this I collect myself and it can take days, weeks or even months. If I can’t go back to an individual and know:
- who it is
- the sex of the individual
- who their partner is
- who their parents are
- which are their offspring
How am I ever going to be able to work out why they sing, what affects their ability to develop song and there they learn it from?
Putting coloured rings on dippers helps us to identify a bird without having to disturb the bird more than once in its life. We use a metal ring because this is the bird’s identifier for the BTO, and three coloured rings because our study population is large. We need that number of combinations to be able to identify to individual level not just by what year they were born.
If putting rings on birds was harmful, it would not even be a considered practice. Bird ringers are trained extensively, and then even after you receive your first license you are still heavily supervised by your trainer. I cannot speak for every single person trained under the BTO’s licensing system but that’s how it is for me, two years in and I am still not independently ringing – but that is fine by me, I would rather no bird is injured under my watch.
I felt as though this video was painting ringers as people who are trophy hunters, wanting photo after photo with their latest “catch”. This again, may be true of some people who ring as a hobby, but there was no discussion about the possible scientific reasons for putting rings on birds. The fact that one of my images was used without my consent made me feel sick. The irony is that if anyone looking at that photo followed it to my blog, they would know exactly why we ring birds and how much insight we have gained into their lives.
All ringing in the UK is only allowed under appropriate licensing, colour ringing for specific projects has to be approved by the BTO before starting, see this page on colour ringing.
The most annoying part of this whole debacle is that I felt so uncomfortable with my images being used in such a way that I have removed all photos of birds in the hand off my pages. It made me sad to do it but I didn’t feel happy and did not sleep very well last night out of stress of people thinking the work I do is evil. The only reason I put them up was with the hope to educate and inform, not to be taken out of context and used as a bad example.
In the next few days I will do a proper write up of ringing dippers and what we do for what reasons but till then any questions about the subject are welcome.
Anyone still wondering about why we disrupt these birds’ lives, just think – any scientific fact you have learnt and shared with someone about an animal had to be discovered and rigorously tested. Any time you learn about a bird species, these have been tagged and observed throughout their lives in order to gain information about their life cycles and behaviours. You can’t just announce something as fact after seeing it happen in once instance, that’s not how science works. The study we are currently conducting on this group of dippers has not impacted their lives, if it was something that would affect the survival of the birds we wouldn’t be doing it! Use some common sense, people conducting surveys are usually those that care enough about the animals in question that they devote their lives to it, or give up their free time for the greater good.
I feel like if these same people pointing the finger actually knew what went into building and maintaining a population study like this they would be humbled at the amount of care that goes into the minimal handling of the birds that we do. Also, what we do is the tip of the ice berg compared to lab studies on birds…. But that’s a whole other kettle of fish.