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Hummingbird Banding 101

Hummingbird Banding 101

During the first two weeks of August for the past 15 years, Catawba County’sRiverbend Park has hosted a hummingbird banding demonstration for the public. This year, Garrick Lane of Table Rock Productions produced a video that provides a close-up look at hummingbird banding in action.

To learn more about what hummingbird banding is all about (and what’s happening in the video!), we talked with Riverbend Park Superintendent (and video hummingbird bander) Dwayne Martin. Dwayne is one of only two certified and federally licensed hummingbird banders in North Carolina.

What is hummingbird banding?
Hummingbird banding is a process of placing a small metal band on the leg of a hummingbird to identify each individual bird and to collect data about its migration patterns, biometrics, and environmental health. A small metal band containing a unique alpha-numeric code is placed around the leg of the bird so each can be identified, recorded and tracked.

A person has to be licensed by federal and state governments to band hummingbirds; catching hummingbirds is illegal under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Not just anyone can get these permits; one has to go through a long training process. It normally takes about 3-4 years to learn to band hummingbirds. Even folks who band other birds are not allowed to band hummingbirds without this special training.  Many of the tools used for banding are special just to hummingbird banders. Since banding of hummingbirds is so specialized and the training so extensive, there are less than 200 officially trained and licensed hummingbird banders in the United States.

How is hummingbird banding done?
First, we catch the hummingbird using a Dawkins Trap, which is a mesh cylinder with a feeder hung inside. The hummingbirds pretty much catch themselves in this trap. They are attracted to the sugar water feeder inside; the trap has a door that they will eventually find to go in to feed. They almost always go straight up when trying to exit and thus get trapped. Then all we have to do is reach in and gently pluck them from the ceiling of the trap.

Once caught, the hummingbird is aged and sexed. Adult males and females are the easiest to tell apart; adult males have the "ruby" red throat and an all-black, pointed tail while adult females have a plain white throat and a white tip on the tail. Juvenile males normally have a few red throat feathers or at least some dark streaking on the throat. They do not get their full red throat feathers until the end of their first winter. Juvenile females look just like adults, except their body feathers have buff-colored edges to them. Aging is done by looking at the hummingbirds’ bills; they have grooves on their bills for roughly the first 6 months of their lives. Using a magnifying glass, the grooves can be seen; if they are present, the bird is a juvenile.

Next, the band is applied to the hummingbird’s leg using special needle-nosed pliers. The bands are made of thin metal and are extremely small; it takes 5,500 of them to weigh an ounce. Once banded, several measurements are taken including weight and length of the wing, tail, and bill, and the hummingbird is checked for fat and molt. They are checked for fat to see if they are putting on weight to prepare for migration. This is done by blowing the breast feathers back and looking for the fat just under the skin. They are also checked for molt (replacing old feathers with new feathers).  The pins of the newly-growing fresh feathers are visible by blowing the feathers back. Lastly, we mark the birds on the top of their heads with a small white dot so we can easily identify those birds that have already been banded so we don’t catch them again this season.

Through the whole banding process, the hummingbirds are kept in the toe of a stocking. This is to keep them calm and still for the banding. They get so still, in fact, that sometimes when being released, the hummingbirds sit for an extended period of time. This is likely because they don't realize they are free.  Once they realize this, they fly away. We sometimes blow over them so they will know they are free to go.

Why is hummingbird banding done?
Hummingbird banding is done to track the migration, growth and life span of the hummingbird species. The data collected during the banding is entered into a database and sent to the Bird Banding Laboratory of the USGS (U.S. Geological Service) located in Laurel, Maryland. The BBL uses this data for research analysis, monitoring, identifying, and alerting about any endangered hummingbird species or ecosystem collapse. If the bird is recaptured or found deceased, the band number can be entered into the banding lab's website and information about that specific bird will be provided, and also the bander is notified.

Hummingbird banding has been taking place at Riverbend Park since 2006. Sites that do banding over a long period of time are the best because they are likely to have birds recaptured. Hummingbirds are creatures of habit; the same individuals are likely to return each year at about the same time. Our public bandings are done the first two Saturdays in August because that is the time of year when there are the most hummingbirds present as they are fattening up for migration; we are able to capture the most then.

What are some of the more memorable bird banding experiences or results you’ve had at Riverbend Park?
The hummingbird banding is one of my favorite events here at Riverbend Park! I enjoy seeing people’s reactions to seeing the hummingbirds up close. A lot of times, little kids get to release them and the looks on their faces are so fun; it’s rewarding to create that experience for them.

A few years ago, one hummingbird I banded here was recaptured 12 days later in Rockport, Texas. It was the first ruby-throated hummingbird ever banded in North Carolina to be recaptured in another state. And it helped us confirm a fact about the hummingbirds’ migration patterns. You see, we know that hummingbirds come across the Gulf of Mexico each spring; we know that for a fact. But on their fall migration, we always suspected that a lot of them, instead of going across the Gulf of Mexico, go around it. The fact that that bird was recaptured in Rockport, Texas, almost halfway around the Gulf of Mexico, helped prove that theory: that hummingbirds are going around the Gulf instead of going across it.

In closing, can you share with us some hummingbird facts, myths or tips?
Hummingbirds are incredible creatures. The average ruby-throated hummingbird weighs just 3 grams (for reference, a nickel weighs 4.5 grams); their lifespan is generally between 3 to 5 years. Their wings beat 50 times per second; their hearts 1,200 times per minute. At rest, their breathing is about 250 times per minute. About 85% of their diet is insects; nectar just gives them the energy to do what they do.

Contrary to what you may have heard, hummingbirds do not migrate on the backs of geese; they are quite capable of migrating on their own. Feeders do not affect migration times. Migration is triggered by the release of hormones, which are controlled by day length. Hummingbirds migrate in the fall to go where the food sources are rich and plentiful.

Hummingbirds will sometimes fly into garages because they are checking out the red emergency pull handle, thinking it's a flower (hummingbirds are known to be attracted to the color red). This handle can be covered with aluminum foil to keep the hummingbirds from being drawn to it. If they do get into the garage, there are a few things you can do:

  • Hang a feeder in the doorway; they may go to it and fly out.
  • The hummingbird will likely fly around the ceiling of the garage; you can raise a broom up to them and they will sometimes land on it and can then be carried outside.
  • Or, just watch them; they will get tired and fall to the ground, at which time they can be carefully picked up and carried outside.

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