Marking Fauna for Identification



Gerry Nagel 



1. Field surveys gather data on animal and bird movements, growth rate longevity, etc..    Without some form of positive identification such studies would not be possible.


2: Within captive populations the processes of natural selection are thwarted.    Without precise breeding records based on a method of identification, it becomes impossible to maintain a healthy gene pool over a number of generations.


3. Behaviour studies in the wild, but especially in captivity, are greatly facilitated where identification of individual animals is possible.


4. From time to time, it may be desirable to have proof of ownership or proof that fauna was captive bred.    Some permanent form of identification such as Tattoos or closed rings may seem desirable.






Rings are the most appropriate method of distinguishing birds.


a. Closed Rings


It is suggested that the National Parks and Wildlife Service should insist that all captive bred birds be closed rung to provide proof of captive breeding.   Such rings would be individually numbered and supplied by the N.P.W.S. to, theoretically, provide complete control over the hobby to avoid nest robbing and trapping.


As closed rings can only be placed on young birds prior to fledging, such a system could have a significant effect on trapping.    It would not, of course, affect nest robbing in the least.     It would shift illegal activity from mist netting to nest robbing and thereby perhaps increasing chainsaw activity.


a. (i) Interference


Lorikeets are notable examples of wild species which adapt very readily to captivity and are easily tamed and domesticated.    Many do not resent inspection of the nest or handling of their young. There are exceptions which may number as high as a majority.    These birds would kill or desert their young.  Domesticated species such as Lovebirds, Budgerigars or Indian Ringneck parrots are likely to offer a much lower loss rate due to the proposed compulsory interference, but the incidence of deserted young in other species could well be disastrously high.


Canaries and some native birds lay eggs in cup shaped nest which lends itself to inspection.    But what of the complex woven nests of many other finch species?    Compulsory closed ringing almost certainly implies an end to captive breeding of such species.


a. (ii) Injury


Many species of birds, notably parrots, but also finches, softbills and doves, will try to remove foreign objects from a nest.    Many species do not remove droppings and food waste from the nest site, and where a clutch is large, it is common for the feet of the young to become caked with dried offal causing infection, deformity or just discomfort.    Under many circumstances a ring on the leg would aggravate this situation.   For many birds, notably ground birds, a ring may prove a fatal hazard if it impedes its progress through the grass and scrub.


There are clearly many advantages to closed ringing, and undeniably in positive methods of identification, but advocates of the concept tend to base their enthusiastic support on rather sparse data, or on a casual disregard for the welfare of the birds.


b. Split Rings


(i) Plastic rings, available in a range of distinguishing colours or colour patterns nay be stretched to fit over the bird’s leg after it is safely weaned.    It then contracts to a comfortable fit permanently around the leg,


(ii) Plastic spring curls may be unfurled and rewound about the leg for identification, but parrots and some other species are often able to work these loose.


(iii) Split metal rings, individually numbered, can be placed on a bird of any age for positive identification, but do require the owner to capture the bird, unlike coloured plastic rings which may be used for identification at a distance.


(Eds. note - Since this article was first published, as many of you will already know, the split metal rings are now available in a multitude of colours with numbers).




a. Plastic Neck Rings


These offer ready identification from a distance, but would seem to pose a threat to the welfare of the animal if they were to catch on twigs and branches in the brush.   It would seem to pose a special hazard for species such as Pademelons or Rat Kangaroos which are known to commonly travel through heavy scrub at speed.


b. Ear Tags


Although identification is limited to animals which are first caught, this seems a relatively painless manner of marking individual animals.   Unfortunately many species will scratch out the tags.


c. Tattoos


A tattoo, possibly on the inside of the leg could prove a permanent form of identification which may be applied painlessly to a sedated animal.   Its value is limited by the fact that the animal must be caught for identification, and with Macropods the stress can be fatal.




a. Dying the Fur


It is possible to achieve some degree of identity recognition by means of dyes on the fur of captured animals in a field survey, but factors such as doubt on the permanence of the dye, and the limited range of distinction possible, make this method unpopular.


b. Toe Clipping


By cutting off a toe or toes at the first joint it is possible to provide for permanent identification.


This method is commonly employed on field surveys or in scientific institutions such as the I .M.V.S..


Presumably most animals survive the state of shock one imagines must be induced by the experience of having part of a toes or toes hacked off.    If done correctly at the joint, it seems, bleeding is minimal and there is little risk of infection.    On that basis, it would seem that the compensation claims of some workers in industry for the loss of digits are over-rated.    Or do small toes have less feeling than big ones?


When we conduct our surveys of small mammals at Second Valley, it will not be possible to use leg rings on the mice, possums or bandicoots we study as these could become caught in the scrub and so injure the fauna.    Fur dyes are not practical and neck collars, even if they could be fitted on creatures such as small marsupial mice, would pose a threat.   It seems then, that we will be obliged to clip a few toes.


I’ve pinioned a lot of young ducklings and geese and on a few occasions have had to pinion an adult bird, and have no qualms about going culling kangaroos, so why do I have trouble convincing myself that hacking the toes off a rat in the interest science is nothing to get squeamish about?


Perhaps someone could console me by pointing out that we will be using some form of local anaesthetic and spray on antiseptic plastic skin.

Bennett's Wallaby
Juvenile NT Brushtail Possum
Swamp Wallaby
Golden Brushtail Possum
Red Kangaroos
Yellow-footed Rock-wallabies
Baby Squirrel Glider
Sugar Glider

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