Bird Ringing CAN course

Back to Norton Priory, this time for the CAN (Cheshire Active Naturalists) bird ringing course with bird-ringing legend David Norman.

Norton Priory in Runcorn is becoming quite familiar to me now. I was there not long ago for the CAN Diptera course which if you’ve read my blog on you’ll know I loved. And I’ve been there one other time too…

Fleur and I were out checking small-mammal traps with Tony of the mammal group, accompanied by Paul who works at Norton Priory. On that day along with a successful haul of field mice, I met an enigmatic character emerging from some trees in the Priory grounds as Paul was giving us a tour. This chap produced a long-tailed tit from the bag he was carrying. I was captivated. I’d never seen a wild bird that close up before. I then had my mind blown when he reached into the bag and gently produced several more long-tailed tits which flew off as he opened his hand. Quite the spectacle to someone like me who has very little birding experience.

As you’ve probably guessed that was David. I didn’t know it at the time but he’s a very well know member of the birding community in various forms from author to ringer. On Friday I was getting a coffee in the staff room and mentioned to Chloe what I was doing on the weekend. That’ll probably be David Norman, she said. And it was.

When Tom and I arrived on Sunday, slightly late, we joined the group of twenty or so other attendees plus Andy, CAN Chairman, in more or less the same spot that I had met David coming out of the trees that time.


The course wasn’t teaching us to bird ring as that’s a very long process of apprenticeship. It was a demonstration of the process and a chance to hold and release a bird which had been ringed and an introduction by David to the process, history and conservation benefits of studying wild birds in this country. David has ringed over 100,000 birds.

We were treated to close up views of an array of birds. Goldcrests, long-tailed tits, blue tits, great tits, blackbirds, chaffinches, robins, redwings and jays all made an appearance. As someone who hasn’t done any work to do with birds and has limited, garden bird knowledge the thing that struck and enthused me was the nature of a bird in the hand. When you’re used to seeing birds sat in trees or flying you see only a limited aspect of their personalities and that can lead you to view them as rather simple characters.



With the sight of a small bird held safely in the ringer’s grip, boldly pecking and biting at a finger before apparently deciding to wait and see what happens next, you realise that these are robust creatures that experience trials and adventures every day of their lives. They are primed to face adversity and they fly off in a flurry of what seems more like victory than panic. I’m  anthropomorphising I know. I’ll stop now.

I was first to hold a bird. There’s that moment when the question is asked, would someone like to release this one? You all want to. You wait and see if anyone else volunteers. They don’t. You pluck up to courage and say out loud “me” but everyone else has been running through the same process in their heads and three of you say it within a second of one another. 

I was carefully handed a male redwing. Instinct tells you to place a hand underneath to support the bird but David instructed not to do that so as to avoid crushing the bird’s tail. Its head goes between your index and middle finger with your remaining fingers wrapping around the body. It feels secure this way and it’s reassuringly easy to judge the pressure you need to apply. When handling mammals I’m forever applying too little pressure through over caution, resulting in wriggle-based control problems. Thankfully not so with the redwing in my hand. I held it for a just moment before opening my hand enjoying the split second of action before it was off and away.


(Redwing in David’s hand)

It was an excellent course and we were also treated to tour of the grounds with Paul and a visit to the bone collection from the sites archaeological dig.

Something that really struck me from the day was David’s answer to a question about how long birds like these were likely to live. He pointed out that the longer they live, the longer they are likely to live with the first year being perilous as young, inexperienced birds face life’s trails for the first time. So some birds may live years but with so many dying in the first few months, an average life expectancy could be described in weeks rather than years.

If I were to anthropomorphise once more I’d say it looks exciting to be a bird. They’re ready and equipped to face whatever weird thing happens to them next, and when Tom dropped me off later I viewed the sparrows in the tree of a neighbour’s garden with an enhanced curiosity.

[Thanks to CAN for the use of their photos for this blog]

2 thoughts on “Bird Ringing CAN course

  1. I’ve never been one to read blogs, but yours has thus far done a good job of captivating me (another distraction from getting out there and doing things – not good).
    I liked this one in particular because it has vague similarities to my own experience. I completed my undergraduate degree in 2012, and sadly in that time, never got much practical experience, I’m sure I missed a lot of opportunities. But afterwards, I decided to take the opportunity before settling down to a job where you probably can’t get more than two weeks off at once, and while I still had money (somehow), I went and volunteered in the Peruvian Amazon. Amazing. Need I say more? I went as an Assistant Mammal Researcher and spent three weeks in a lodge up the Las Piedras River. Most of this time was spent doing mammal transects looking deer, squirrel, 7 types of monkey, possums, agouti, taipir, giant ant eater, oscelots, jaguars….you get the picture. There was also a Bird team, and I was allowed to spend a few days with them as well. I’ve been down right spoilt – never had I really seen a bird in the hand and appreciated it (occasional birds that had flown into windows and such), and now I was getting up close looks at some of the most spectacular birds this world has to offer. To begin with I just watched, I wasn’t allowed to take them out the nets, or hold them, and I was fine with that, worried that I’d hurt them (though secretly still wishing I could). Eventually they passed a few on to me to be released, and I got to touch their soft silky feathers, feel their small bodies beneath the fluff, and watch them dart off back into the forest, sometimes settling nearby to re-order their feathers and sit in defiance of us as if saying “Try and catch me again now!”. Then finally, they let me have a go. Despite being in one of the most biodiverse places on earth, mist netting in the jungle can be slow, maybe not even getting over 10 birds in a morning. Why they decided to give me the one bird they’d caught in hours I still don’t know. Carefully slipping my hand into the bag I felt around, trying to figure out what it was I was touching. Head? Tail? Wing? I made the mistake of trying to have a peek to see what was going on…..and out it went. I looked around guiltily, but somehow no-one seemed to have noticed, until the leader finally turned to me, took on my expression and asked “Is it gone?” I could only nod my head shamefully.

    Thus ends my first bird ringing experience. Now I am a trainee with the BTO ringing scheme and have ringed over 500 birds, processed over 750 and still have a lot to learn, but I’m now looking to step into the professional world, though I feel I am still lacking in a lot of experience, but there’s nothing I can do about that but keep working to gain more.

    It’s very nice to read up about the frustrations and triumphs of another fellow ecologist (or wanna-be in my case), and who knows, maybe we’ll meet in the future!

    • Hi Suze, glad you liked the blog, I enjoyed reading your bird ringing takes there too! Confidence plays such a big part in working with wildlife doesn’t it? You must have that enviable hand dexterity now that comes from repetition. Where do you do your ringing?

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