Bird Ringing at Roam

By Debbie Cooper

There’s always something new and fascinating to learn in the bush, especially when your guides are as exceptional as those at ROAM Private Game Reserve near Prince Albert in the Karoo.

Having already explored the magnificently diverse landscape, tracking cheetah on foot, seeing great bird life, buffalo, giraffe, delightful meerkats and other species, with our heads full of new and wondrous facts and sights, we were ready for something different. The late March morning temperature forecast promised a dip to the region of properly chilly. Our hosts suggested several activity options, including a bird ringing demonstration which none of us had previously witnessed. (The appeal was heightened by the knowledge that the bird capture nets would be set up right outside the lodge below the beautiful lawn and pool, thus enabling us to wander down at leisure and warmly wrapped up with a steaming cup of morning coffee!)  

And so it was that at 07h30, as the translucent golden light crept across the rocky landscape, our captivating experience began. Keen amateur birders that we were, our interest was piqued by the amazingly in-depth knowledge shared with us by ROAM’s Conservation Manager, Stuart Dunlop who explained so well the history, purpose and technique of ringing birds. (ROAM actually has three certified and highly experienced bird ringers, with Stuart’s wife Bronwyn and Reserve Manager Donovan de Swardt also trained and registered to undertake this specialised task*).

What followed were a few hours of enthrallment as Stuart unveiled each of the several species of small birds that had been trapped in the fine nets, including Cape sparrow, white-backed mouse-bird, red-billed quelea and lark-like bunting. The capture process is not harmful or overly stressful to the birds. They are gently removed from the net and placed in small soft bags where they feel calm and safe until being handled. When their turn comes for the ringing, monitoring, measuring and recording process, this is dealt with ethically and expertly, minimising the time of their actual handling. Details such as gender, weight, brood patches indicating whether they currently have chicks, age, and other important details are noted before a ring is placed on their ‘ankles’ and they are set free. Importantly, this information is standardised and submitted to the national database to contribute to the overall understanding of bird behaviour and health.

For us as observers, the privilege of seeing these little feathered creatures up close was extraordinary. Birds are truly miraculous in their exceptional ‘design and engineering’ that enables flight, remarkable migration distance, energy use and so much more. Each species has a different adaptation or quality unique to its own needs. I’m sure one could spend a lifetime studying birds and never get close to knowing all there is to learn – but without any hesitation, we can say that a few hours in the company of a bird ringer will be one of the most fascinating experiences of one’s life, let alone a huge highlight of a holiday.

We may not all be ornithologists but participating in this worthy conservation-related exercise is one of the best and most enjoyable activities for all ages! Be sure to include it in your next trip to ROAM Private Game Reserve.

* The practice of bird ringing has been in place internationally for over 120 years (and since 1948 in South Africa) and contributed enormously to our understanding of not only birds themselves, but also ecology, environmental impacts and changes. Bird ringers must be trained over extensive hours and bird species, then professionally supervised for a further period before they are registered with SAFRING (The South African Bird Ringing Unit at the University of Cape Town).