Bird ringing in South Africa started in 1948 when the Southern African Ornithological Society (SAOS) initiated a bird ringing scheme under the leadership of Dr EH Ashton. The first birds to be ringed were 31 Cape Vultures Gyps coprotheres, ringed on 1 August 1948 at Kranzberg by a team of birders and mountaineers. A year later one of these, ring C00086 was found near Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, the first recovery of a southern African bird ring.

Bird ringing was initially organized by an NGO (Southern African Ornithological Society, SAOS) and the ringing effort steadily increased and by the 1960s the cost and complexity of administering the scheme exceeded the resources of the SAOS. The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) coordinated a deal whereby the four provincial conservation departments became the major sponsors of the National Unit for Bird Ringing Administration (NUBRA), in 1971, based at the University of Cape Town.

The unit became part of the Avian Demography Unit, Department of Statistical Sciences, University of Cape Town, in 1991, which became the Animal Demography Unit, and moved to the Department of Zoology, University of Cape Town, in January 2008. In 2008 SAFRING organised a wide variety of events to celebrate its 60th anniversary of bird ringing in South Africa. 

Ringing birds individually allows us to follow even the most exceptional personal fates. The oldest wild bird ever recorded could be a Manx Shearwater captured on a little island off north Wales. The venerable bird was first captured and ringed by ornithologists in May 1957, when it was fullgrown, hence between four and six years old. It had been caught in 1961, 1978 and 2002, when a warden of the Bardsey island Bird Observatory caught the seabird again. The shearwater‘s possible age of 52 years could make it the record holder. Until now, the world‘s oldest ringed bird was a US albatross estimated to be over 50.

One of the longest journeys ever recorded is from a Common Tern ringed on 27 June 2003 as a nestling in Hälsingland in central Sweden and found dead on 1 December 2003 on Stewart Island in New Zealand. If we assume a normal route from Sweden to South Africa and then to New Zealand, the tern might have covered 25,000 kilometres. Measured as straight line distances, the tern’s journey is “only” 17,508km. The rate of migration is quite different from that attained in flights for short distances. The fastest journey is from a ringed European Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica that flew in 27 days from Umhlanga,  Kwa- Zulu Natal, South Africa, to Whitley Bay, United Kingdom. 
A Black-headed Gull was ringed as a fledgling on 29 June 1996 in Hämeenkyrö county, Pirkanmaa, Finland. The metal ring was sighted with a telescope on the 3 and 7 January 2000 in Fort Worth, Texas, USA. The bird was back again to its wintering quarters in Texas on 30 November 2000.