The ABC’s Of Leg Bands

There are a number of reasons why identification of a bird is important. These include proof of ownership, governmental requirements, identification of lost or stolen birds, and tracking of birds for breeding purposes. The ability to identify a bird also acts as a deterrent to smugglers and the illegal bird trade. Thus it has a positive impact on saving birds in their natural environments.

The most widely accepted means of identification of birds today is the leg band. Microchipping and DNA fingerprinting are alternative methods which are gaining in popularity. Many people prefer these newer methods for a variety of reasons. However at this time, the leg band is required by many governmental organizations.

For this reason, it is important to understand as much about banding as possible. This article will discuss the different types of bands, the reasons for their use, the issue of band removal and the methods of tracing a band. It is intended to present information so that bird owners can make their own informed decisions.


Closed bands are found on birds which have been banded as babies. This usually means that they are captive bred. In the US we associate this with domestically bred birds, but captive bred birds from other countries also have closed bands.

Closed bands are circular and seamless. They are made of stainless steel, aluminum or plastic and come in a variety of colors and sizes . The band is placed on a baby bird, about 2-3 weeks of age, by sliding the band over the foot to the leg portion. As the bird grows, the feet become too large for the band to fall off. Removal can only be accomplished by cutting the band off. This permanency makes closed bands a more reliable method of identifying a bird than open bands which can be opened and substituted.

Open bands are normally found on wild caught birds which have been imported into the US. An open band is a piece of metal which has been bent into the form of a circle. The ends of the band do not meet and are separated by a space to enable them to be placed on a mature bird’s leg. After placement, the ends are then pinched together until they meet. Open bands are used on older birds whose feet are too large for banding with a closed band.


The USDA requires banding of all imported birds prior to releasing them from quarantine. The bands are used to indicate that a bird has been legally imported into the country. They are engraved with letters and numbers identifying the bird and the quarantine station. Since these bands are being placed on older birds with mature feet, open bands must be used.

The federal government and many states require permits to transfer certain species of exotic birds into a state. Other states require permits to own or breed exotic birds. One of the requirements for obtaining a permit is a bird’s band number. It is proof that the bird was either legally imported or domestically bred. A few states will accept other forms of identification such as a microchip or DNA fingerprint, but most still require a band.

A bird owner should think twice before having a band removed. Many of us own birds which are long lived. We may move to a new state sometime in the future or our birds may someday have a new owner in another state. Furthermore, new laws and regulations are being enacted every day. One or more of these could affect you in the future. Until other methods have become acceptable, the band is a required means of identification.


Bands are one method of identifying a lost or stolen bird. No matter how careful bird owners and breeders are, the unthinkable sometimes happens and a bird flies away. It may be found by a conscientious person who would like to return the bird to its owner. If the bird is wearing a band, the task becomes much easier. Many bands are traceable and a finder (with help from a pet store, veterinarian or breeder) may be able to trace the bird and its owner. If a finder advertises that a bird has been found, the true owner can prove his ownership of this particular bird if he has the band number.

If a bird has been stolen, the thief will often remove the band to prevent discovery. However, there are documented cases where birds have been recovered years later due to identification of the leg band. Removal of the band by a thief, decreases the value of the bird and some thieves take their chances. Reputable breeders and pet stores will question the history of an unbanded bird. Anyone buying a bird as a pet should also question any bird which is not banded. The ability to remove a leg band is one of this method’s drawbacks when compared to chipping or fingerprinting.


Those interested in breeding birds need a reliable method of identifying them. Keeping the gene pools diverse, pairing unrelated birds, breeding for traits or mutations are all important issues. Band numbers are used by breeders to identify and keep records on their birds. Use of colored bands also enables a breeder to more easily distinguish among multiple birds in an aviary without disturbing the birds. Breeders buying older birds can trace the origins of the birds to ensure that potential pairings are unrelated or to identify certain traits. Bands are also an inexpensive means of identification.


There are some bird owners and veterinarians who routinely remove the band from every bird they own or treat, believing that the band may be a cause of future injury. There are fears that a bird can get hung up in its cage by the band or that a bird will pick and chew at the band and its feet. All cages should be inspected for safety whether a bird is banded or not. Any exposed cage wire ends or other hazards should be removed. Experience has shown that if a band is of the proper size, most birds will not pick. There are instances where open bands have not been correctly closed , allowing thin objects to slide into the opening. This can be corrected by closing the band properly.

However, there will be instances when a band should be removed. It may be too small. There may be swelling, loss of feathers, picking or some medical reason. Consult your veterinarian if you have concerns.

If the band is removed, you may want to use an alternative method of identification such as microchipping or DNA fingerprinting, especially for the rarer and more expensive birds. Many veterinarians will provide a signed certificate containing the band number being removed and a description of the bird. Possession of the band and the certificate and even a picture of the bird with the band on will help. However, it does not prove that the bird being sold or moved is the same bird that the certificate was issued for. Tying the certificate to a microchip id or DNA fingerprint would help accomplish this. Remember that regulations and acceptance of such a certificate vary from state to state.

Howard Voren, noted aviculturist, has written of a case in which a vet removed the bands of a newly purchased pair. DNA sexing later showed that the birds were not a male/female pair. He writes that “The seller refused to take the birds back because the birds could no longer be positively identified, nor resold as domestically bred to a skeptical buyer. The vet had by his actions turned the birds into damaged goods.”


Whether imported or domestic, open or closed banded, the leg band carries letters and numbers which identify the bird. Import bands are traceable. Domestic bands purchased from bird associations and some commercial vendors are also traceable.

Imported Birds

Imported birds are open banded at the quarantine stations before release. There are two types of quarantine stations, privately owned commercial import stations and USDA-owned and operated stations. The coding on the leg bands is different for each. The following information on import bands was printed in an article from Pet Business Magazine June, 1987 and may have changed since then.

USDA-owned and operated quarantine stations use bands with letters and three or four numbers. The letters refer to the name of the station:

  • Honolulu, HI – HH
  • Key West, FL – T
  • Miami, FL – 58A, 58B, 58C, 58D, 58E, 58F or USDA-F
  • Newburgh, NY – NNY

The letters on the leg bands of USDA-regulated pet bird quarantine stations refer to location and are followed by three or four numbers:

  • Brownsville, TX – USDAB
  • Honolulu, HI – USDAH
  • Los Angeles, CA – USDAA
  • Miami, FL – USDAM
  • Mission, TX – USDAX ** for confiscated birds being put up for auction.
  • Newburgh, NY – USDANNY
  • San Ysidro, CA – USDAN

Privately owned commercial import stations use bands with an alphanumeric code – three letters followed by three numbers. The first letter signifies the state in which the station is located:

  • California – C,O
  • Florida – F
  • Hawaii – H
  • Illinois – I
  • Louisiana – L
  • Michigan – M
  • New York – N
  • Texas – T

The second letter denotes the quarantine station, while the third letter is part of the bird’s ID number. For additional information regarding the numbers and letters on a bird’s import band, call the USDA Administration Office Department of Agriculture, Fish, & Wildlife.

Domestic Birds

Domestic birds wear closed bands. Their traceability depends upon the source of the band. Many bird associations such as SPBE, AFA or species related organizations offer record keeping services and bands to their members. There are other band providers who provide both traceable and non-traceable bands. To trace a band which has an organization name engraved on it, you would contact the organization engraved on the band. Each organization will have its own procedures to trace the band.

For example the bands for SPBE include a breeder code (usually 3 letters), a number (bird identification number) and the year. The initials SPBE also appear – that makes them traceable to that particular organization.

Major band providers, such as L & M Leg Bands and Red Bird, make many of the bands for the organizations mentioned. They also make bands for others, such as individual breeders and aviaries.

L & M offers customers engraving which includes: a buyer id code (up to three characters such as letters, numbers or symbols); a consecutive series of numbers so each band has a unique number for record-keeping; their state or Canadian province abbreviation; and lastly, the year. With the exception of some states, this is all optional. L & M is not imprinted on their bands.

It is difficult, and sometimes impossible, to trace a band which does not have an organization code on it. The best course is to contact the major band manufacturers. They have thousands of customers, so it is unlikeley that the band buyer code would be unique. But they may be able to provide the names of a few breeders using this code, which is a starting point. The more information which has been engraved on the band, the better the chances of tracing it.

There are some states, such as Colorado or New Jersey, which have regulations which make tracing of bands easier. In Colorado the state assigns unique breeder codes that must appear on the bands, making them traceable. New Jersey requires band manufacturers to make sure that no one uses the same code twice and an ‘NJ’ in an oval must also appear on the bands. In California, budgies must have a traceable state registered closed band on in order to be sold, traded or bartered legally in the state.

Leg Bands are not the only means of identifying a bird and they definitely have their pros and cons. However, they are currently the method required by many governmental organizations. For this reason, it is important for owners to understand as much as they can about banding.

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