The mysteries of bird migration

To commemorate a century of bird banding (ring-marking) in Norway, Stavanger Museum opened a new temporary exhibition in 2014. The exhibition told you the story behind bird banding, offered knowledge on migratory birds, and findings which the research method had enabled. Through bird banding, some species have also been saved from possible extinction.

Sweden’s archbishop Olaus Magnus (1490-1557) claimed in 1555 that swallows wintered at the bottom of lakes – a ‘truth’ perpetuated by Swedish naturalist Carl von Linné (1707-1778) during the 1700s. Had the great thinkers and researchers of earlier centuries observed how, in the autumn, large flocks of swallows alighted at night in lakeside vegetation? Was this the observation from which they drew their conclusions?


It was the Dane Hans Christian Cornelius Mortensen who first had the idea of fastening a ring with a number and address around a bird’s leg. Mortensen began experimenting in 1890, but not until 1899, after solving practical problems, did he begin systematic banding. His expressed goal was ‘if possible, to generate information about various birds’ journeys, longevity, age differences, geographical breeding, and much more’. Mortensen’s aims are still relevant. We band birds because we need to know about their movements, age span, causes of death and the number of chicks they produce. This information is essential if we are to manage bird populations well.


On 8 July 1914, the first bird in Norway was scientifically banded. Ring number 1 was placed on the leg of a Common House Martin – a type of swallow. That day three such swallows and four Pintail duck chicks were banded at Gaukliseter (alpine farm) in Valdres, and the man who started it all was Hans Thomas Lange Schaanning. In 1918 Schaanning became a conservator at Stavanger Museum, eventually building up Norway’s first bird banding centre in Stavanger. Since then, almost 9 million birds have been banded in Norway. Several thousand researchers and proficient amateurs have participated in this work. The exhibition tells some of the secrets that have been revealed through bird banding – a simple, yet effective research method.