Flock Identification: Toe Punching, Numbered Bandettes, Wing Bands
There are many reasons for tracking groups and individuals in the home or farm flock, first and foremost to assist an improvement breeding project—an opportunity I very much hope you will consider. Various options for identifying birds are sold by poultry houses, so explore some of their catalogs to find ones that are right for you. I won’t consider all those options in detail here, but just describe three means of identification I’ve used to track breeding in my flock of Icelandic chickens. As you’ll see, I recently made a change from one of those methods (plastic bandettes) to another (wing bands).
Identification of Chicks: Toe Punching
Toe punching of chicks is the simplest of all means of identification. A toe punch works the same as a hand-held office paper punch, though it is the size of a nail clipper. Punching should be done early—I typically punch each clutch of chicks the day following hatch, just before releasing to the outside with their mothers.
To illustrate making punches, imagine holding the chick with its head away from your body, looking down at its feet.
Punches are made in the webbing between the toes, with two webs between the three toes of each foot, for a total of four possible punch positions. Just slip the webbing between the jaws of the toe punch and clamp down. Examine the punch and make sure the punched-out tissue is not hanging to one edge of the hole—if it is, regrowth of tissue into the hole is far more likely.
A couple of considerations, first about regrowth. Preventing regrowth—which would eliminate your careful identification of the bird, obviously—is first of all about making that clean initial punch. But I make doubly sure the tissue will not regrow by re-punching the hole after a couple of weeks. Another option (one I haven’t used myself) is to use a small surgical snip, also available from poultry or game bird supply houses, to cut a notch in the webbing rather than punch a hole. A notch will not regrow.
The other consideration is the distress for the chick. Yes, certainly there is pain for the chick from the punch. But think as you make your punches of the benefits for future flock members that will come from your improvement breeding. And don’t imagine that using plastic bands is a better alternative simply because it avoids the temporary pain of the punch. Handling the chick for applying identification of any sort is itself stressful, and the use of plastic bands—which have to be changed several times as the bird grows—could well mean more stress overall than an initial punch (or two). Note as well that, if you fail to change plastic bands as the bird grows, they will cut into the shank, crippling the bird and of course causing far more pain.
The following graphic illustrates toe punching in a specific application: marking chicks with reference to “clan” in my three-clan mating system. Let’s call the clans Red, Green, and Blue.
Simple—I use only one of three unique punches to distinguish every bird in my flock as being in one of the three clans: Red clan is punched “left foot, inside web”; Green clan = “right, inside”; and Blue clan = “right, outside.” Since a given bird stays in its assigned clan for life, a well-made toe punch will always prevent incorrect matings, even in a case where a bird has lost its numbered bands. (See below.)
As said, this simple three-position punching is adequate for identification of chicks in my mating system. But of course more complicated punches can carry more coding information if required, if we imagine assigning numerals 1 through 4 to the four web positions.
The number and positions of punches can thus translate into number codes to enter in our record keeping. Here are a few examples.
12 • 13 • 14 • 23 • 24 • 34
123 • 124 • 134 • 234
Do note that some would say there are sixteen possible combinations, but that is true only if we allow no-punch-at-all as a code in the system. If I allow that option, however, it’s possible I may miss a chick sometime while punching a different group, with the result that in future selections that chicken would be included in the no-punch-at-all group, a misidentification. Thus I do not allow no-punch-at-all as a code, so a bird found to be without any punch in future selections will be an obvious unknown, and I would not use it for breeding.
Identification of Adults: Numbered Bandettes
While fundamental to record keeping, selection, and breeding, toe punching only serves to identify groups—for tracking the three separate clans in my breeding system, for example. With a maximum of only fifteen unique punches, toe punching cannot distinguish individuals unless the flock is very small indeed—an additional form of identification is required for tracking individual flock members. Again, there are a number of options, but (until recently) I chose plastic bandettes as the most useful overall. (See below for my new preferred option, wing bands.) Bandettes are made from strips of stiff durable plastic shaped into a tight coil. To apply, hold the bird with one hand, its shank extended, open the coil with the other while slipping it around the shank, then release so that the plastic snaps back into its original closed shape. The bandettes are sold in various colors and sizes, printed with sequenced numbers. The ones I buy are available in six colors—red, green, blue, yellow, orange, and white—in numbered lots of 25 each. (I can order series 1–25 for one coding and 26–50 for another.) Sizes, based on diameter, vary to accommodate stages of growth and different species, from pigeons up to geese or turkeys. Size choice is critically important: The band must not constrict the shank, but it has to be small enough that it cannot slip down over the joint where the toes come together, nor move up over the hock.
Do note a couple of frustrations working with bandettes. Despite the most careful choice of size to fit a specific breed, a band may occasionally work its way up over the hock and restrict the flesh at the bottom of the leg. You’re unlikely to notice the problem until the affected bird limps by. The problem is easily remedied, but in the meantime, the bird is under a good deal of stress. On the other hand, bands sometimes come off. Since the fit of a #7 band on the shank of one of my Icelandic hens is to such a precise tolerance, however, I suspect that the lost bands don’t “come off”—they are taken off by determined hens themselves. This is a problem I’ve just had to live with, replacing lost bands from time to time. (See below.) Bands quickly get pretty grimy on chickens who are out foraging, as they should be—identification by color remains easy, though a hands-on inspection is required to read the numbers for a positive individual identification. Wiping with a damp rag clears obscured numbers. Finally, since the number is printed on the surface of the plastic, it can eventually wear off. Replacement bands with fresh legible numbers may occasionally be necessary for older birds.
Some flocksters band their birds as chicks, then keep increasing ring size as they grow. If you adopt this method, it is essential as noted earlier that your size changes are timely to avoid the bands’ cutting into the shanks of the birds as they grow. I never band hens in my flock until they are breeding age and hence ready to wear the #7 size. The toe punches are sufficient for selections I have to make before that time.
I’m no mathematician, but it should be obvious that it’s possible to code an enormous amount of information with six colors, four number sequences in the 1 to 100 range—and two shanks. Let’s look at an actual use of bandettes for record-keeping in my own flock.
It obviously makes sense to use band colors to indicate clan membership, so half of the six available colors I reserve for clan identification. Every adult hen in the flock thus has a band on the right shank to indicate her clan—Red, Green, or Blue. Since the numbers on the bands are sequenced, I note them in my records to identify specific hens: “Blue-8 is such a good broody, gotta keep her. Green-21 lays that misshapen egg, put her in the stock pot. Red-13 has laid 18 eggs in the last three weeks—wow! keep that lady as a breeder!”
But note that I still have three colors available, so a color on the left shank can code for different information—year of hatch, for example.
Here I’ve placed a yellow band on the left shank of hens hatched in 2013. For 2014 the left band will be orange, and for 2015, white.
Note a big advantage of banding both shanks: The combination of color and number is unique, both on the left and on the right. Remember that sometimes a band gets lost. But if the coding on both shanks is unique, I can still properly identify a hen who has lost one of her bands. Let’s say Left-Yellow-10/Right-Green-21 loses her left band. Right-Green-21 is still a unique marker in the flock. I can put a new yellow band on her left shank, note the replacement number in my records, and the hen is still properly identified when it’s time for a selection.
Note that I’ve been referring only to banding hens in my flock. That’s because in my flock of Icelandics, the extreme variation of color, pattern, and even comb style makes each of the six males I typically keep for breeding visually unique. It’s easy to remember who is who as I watch them foraging every day: “Blue-breasted red with that gorgeous rose comb, that’s Iggie; and there’s Streak, with that weird swept-back orange crest.” As insurance, I keep a digital picture of each active male on file in my records. If you’re keeping a more typical breed such as Buff Orpington or New Hampshire, you’re more likely to need to band your males as well. Typically cocks will require a band a couple of sizes up from that of a hen. You might need to order #9 for your hens and #11 for cocks, for example.
Above is a picture of one of my Icelandic hens, showing that she is in the Blue clan (blue band, right shank) and was hatched in 2013 (yellow band, left shank). The unique numbers on each band identify her in my records as Solveig, one of my best broodies.
Identification of Adults: Wing Bands
The system described above—use of plastic bandettes for permanent identification—should work well with most breeds of chickens (and other domestic fowl). Certainly they enable as noted the coding of large amounts of information. But following the hatching season of 2016, I abandoned the bandettes as my ID of choice and switched to wing bands instead. It became more and more obvious that some of my clever Icelandic hens—not all of them by any means, but a hard core of “repeat offenders”—learned how to take their bandettes off! Those hens required replacing lost bandettes (and changing my records) more and more frequently. The final straw came when four hens, all of them broodies in the Green clan, each removed both their bandettes, rendering my notes on their previous performances as mothers useless. I had to switch to an ID method that truly will be permanent—wing bands (I hope).
My impression so far is that my Icies are unable to remove wing bands. Should that continue to be the case, wing bands will remain my new choice for permanent identification of all my birds. Wing bands are available in different colors—so band color will still be the key to clan membership: Red, Green, and Blue—and are stamped with numbers in sequence. Each combination of number and color is unique, and identifies one and only one individual in the flock. For example, the hen with blue wing band (thus Blue clan) numbered 157 (in the range 145 – 160, thus hatched in 2015) has to be Abalone (who my records show was an excellent mama in 2016).
The wing band is invisible when the wing is folded, the biggest difference between this means of ID and bandettes. The latter can be “read” at least for clan and year of hatch at a distance (and even for individual ID if you are close enough to read the numbers and the hen is standing still). But you have to have the bird in hand, wing expanded, in order to read a wing band. On the other hand, wing bands don’t get dirty and their numbers are stamped in—in contrast to the bandettes, whose surface-applied numbers get coated with dirt and may eventually wear off.
Wing bands are available in different styles, some of them requiring applicators, some that can be affixed by hand. I chose to use the Jiffy 893, available from National Band and Tag Company and numerous other sources. It requires an applicator, similar to a small pair of pliers.
If you opt for the Jiffy 893 as well, familiarize yourself with the bands and the applicator before attempting your first application. Note that the upper “leg” of the band ends in a point. Opposite, at the end of the lower leg, is a little button, with a tiny slit. When you clamp down on the applicator handles, the alignment between the point and the slit must be perfect. If it is, the end of the point will crimp tightly under the button, and the completed band will never come off. But if alignment is not precise, the crimp will occur above the button, the band will not be sealed, and over time it could work free. It’s best to sacrifice a few practice bands before beginning, to appreciate the needed precision and get a feel for the technique.
There is a YouTube video showing the application (to day-old chicks) of Jiffy 893 bands. Be warned—that kid makes it look easy! I have not found it to be so. To date I have successfully banded 85 of my birds (26 adult hens and 59 young’uns ranging in age from four to eight weeks) with 64 “misfires”—a failure rate of 43 percent! Doubtless I’ll get more proficient with practice—and you could well be so from the beginning—but I must report the level of frustration thus far.
In any case the basic procedure, illustrated in this inelegant graphic, is pretty straightforward.
- I am right-handed, and it seems more natural to band the bird’s right wing, as in the graphic. Band the left wing of course if that is your preference.
- In the video linked above, the operator holds the chick in one hand and applies the band with the other. I have so far not banded any chicks, and have found it essential to have the help of another pair of hands with any bird that is fully feathered—from a couple of months up to adults.
- My partner holds the bird with its head toward me and spreads out its right wing, fully expanding the webbing between the first and second segments of the wing. In that position the tendon along the edge of the webbing is stretched taut.
- If the band’s point hits even the smallest feather it will be deflected and will not crimp securely. Before affixing the band, therefore, I pull out small patches of feathers, midway along the outside edge of the webbing, both on top and underneath.
- In the video, the operator loads the expanded band into the applicator, brings it into correct position, and clamps down. So far, I have not been able to duplicate that technique! The manufacturer emphasizes that the bottom leg of the band must be centered on and absolutely flat against the bottom arm of the applicator, with the curved arch of the band butted tight to the stop. (See photo above right.) I’ve found it impossible to load the band in this way and have it remain properly loaded while I move the applicator into place. Instead, I manually force the point of the expanded band through the wing webbing, midway between the shoulder and the joint between the second wing segment and the pinion—and just inside the tendon on the outer edge of the webbing. Only after pushing the point through the webbing by hand do I position the band in the applicator and clamp down.
- I always test the completed band to ensure that the point has indeed penetrated the slot in the button and properly crimped under it. If I pull the upper and lower parts of the band, using thumb and fingernails of each hand, I cannot pull apart a properly crimped band. If it is not well-crimped, the two sides of the band will pull apart. In that case I pull the point out of the hole in the webbing and have another go.
- Of course, I record the color and number of the completed band for each bird as I go, and immediately enter them to my flock-identification spreadsheet when I get back inside—and immediately back up the spreadsheet!