Leg Bands and Identification for Birds

By Gregory Rich, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

Why does my bird have a leg band?

Leg bands are often applied by the breeder to help identify and keep track of their birds. In small birds, such as parakeets, canaries, and finches, the bands may be composed of either aluminum or plastic. In medium and large pet birds, the bands are composed of aluminum or steel. Breeders usually apply closed (solid) rings or bands within the first week after hatching, when the bird’s foot is still small enough to fit through the hole. As the bird grows, the leg band cannot be removed unless it is cut off. This helps the breeder monitor the birds that are to be sold, as well as managing the genetics of those birds so they are not bred together.

Quarantine bands are placed on imported birds for regulatory reasons. These bands generally have three letters and three numbers or have the letters "USDA" crimped into the metal band. These bands are often open (incomplete rings) or pinned together. Importation ceased with implementation of the Wild Bird Conservation Act of 1992, so birds with open bands and this type of identification were imported or legally transported to the US before 1993.

"Sexing bands are put on the right leg to indicate males and left leg to indicate females."

Open bands may also be put on the bird after determining the sex of the bird. Sex determination bands are put on the right leg to indicate males and left leg to indicate females.

Can a leg band be a problem for my bird?

Sometimes leg injuries can be caused by leg bands. The bands can get caught in cage parts or toys, which can lead to breaks, cuts, dislocations, or sprains. Leg bands that are too small may cause blood flow constriction of the leg. Some smaller birds may develop a buildup of dead skin between the leg and the band, causing the band to become too tight. If a foot is injured and becomes swollen, the inflexible leg band will cause blood flow restriction to the foot. In a worst-case scenario, the leg band can damage blood circulation to the affected foot, requiring hospitalization and, in some cases, surgical amputation of the foot.

All leg bands should be checked regularly for problems.

Should I have my bird's leg band removed?

The leg band is often the only form of identification for a bird. Unfortunately, if it is removed, positive identification becomes difficult and unreliable. A leg band is rarely linked to owners. Previously, many people have freely removed leg bands. Now, because of current international regulations (C.I.T.E.S.) on the movement, trade, or travel of many birds around the world, positive identification is extremely important. This is especially true of birds considered endangered or threatened. Verification of where a bird was born (captive or wild) may be required if you move, travel, or sell your pet. Leg bands should only be removed if improperly applied, causing problems for the bird, or if you are changing to another or better means of identification as described below.

"Because of current international regulations...positive identification is extremely important."

Never try to remove a leg band at home. Bird legs are very fragile and it is easy to injure your bird. Seek help from an avian veterinarian if you want to have your bird's leg band removed. They may need to sedate your bird to safely remove the leg band.

How else can I identify my bird?

Small identification microchips are commonly used in North America and other countries around the world. This microchip (about the size of a grain of rice) can be quickly and safely implanted into the breast muscle of a bird. The implant is read by passing a scanning wand over the bird with complete safety. The microchip number is recorded and registered to you through the microchip company; the microchip will make a direct and positive identification of the individual bird linked directly to an owner.

Tattoos may be injected into the skin and offer another means of identification. However, tattoos may fade with time or be altered. This is NOT a popular method.

A photograph of the unique skin patterns on the feet is much like fingerprinting a human in that only one bird will have this pattern. However, there is currently no database for retrieving this information.

Genetic DNA "fingerprinting" involves a small sample of blood your veterinarian can have tested to record the unique and specifically individual genetic code of your bird. No other bird will ever have this "fingerprint" and no one can remove it. This particular method is extremely important when evaluating a breeding bird to establish family bloodlines.

Ask your veterinarian about these identification options and advancements to determine the best method for your establishing accurate identification of your bird.

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