What hummingbird banding teaches us

She placed the hummingbird in my hand and he just laid there like he was dead. But he wasn’t. I could feel his itty bitty chest pulsating rapid little taps on my palm.

Taptaptaptaptaptaptaptaptap.

I was afraid I’d crush him, so I tried stretching my hand as flat as possible. It was time for him to go, but he wasn’t moving. He was so small and light it was like holding a whisper. I looked closer at his little body of tiny feathers that looked like a million colorful eyelashes. Without moving his head, his eye moved to look right at me. Was he scared? Did he need help? No. He needed to catch his breath and then the little hummingbird launched with an awkward flutter of his wings and then darted into the sky, high up as fast as he could zip like a bottle rocket.

With the help of Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory (SABO) you can watch and even participate in hummingbird banding. Yes, you can hold that little hummingbird before he takes off after he gets measured, weighed and his new little band is attached. SABO does the banding during the months of April, May, July, August and September (they take June off) where they set up their “lab” at the San Pedro House Bed and Breakfast several times a week during those months. (Check out their website to find out dates and times.)

To catch a hummingbird

Catching a hummingbird isn’t exactly easy. It takes a feeder, a carefully engineered bonnet trap, a remote control radio system and a dedicated group of volunteers who bring their passion and commitment every week to help study these birds. It also takes a special federal permit to do hummingbird banding since native birds are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. In other words, don’t do this yourself. You need to be a trained person holding a permit to do this.

Hummingbird Bonnet trap for banding

A volunteer takes a hummingbird from the trap.

Hummingbird banding remote control

The remote control that operates the trap.

SABO was founded by Naturalist/Directors and husband-wife team Tom Wood and Sheri Williamson. Sheri is well-known around the world as the expert ornithologist on hummingbirds and is the author of A Field Guide to Hummingbirds of North America in the Peterson Field Guide Series. Sheri ‘s unassuming, warm personality puts you instantly at ease and you have to be reminded that she’s highly sought out by bird experts and ornithologists for her deep understanding of hummingbirds with her pop-up banding lab in the middle of the southeastern Arizona desert. She and Tom live in nearby Bisbee, a little town that feels a little bit like a hippie haven, and seems to fit their laid-back personalities.

One of the volunteers has caught a hummingbird in the bonnet and as he reaches in to get the bird I can’t help but think it’s almost like reaching your hand into a blender as the hummingbird hysterically tries to find it’s way out (because who knows where that sharp pointy beak is pointing). It just takes about 15 seconds and then he’s got the bird in his hand. He puts it in a mesh container and asks for my help to carry it to the table where Sheri and her team are set up to weigh, measure and record. He doesn’t really need my help, but he’s involving me in the process. “This is a cool carrier thing,” I say as he slips the ring holding the enclosed mesh bucket on my finger for transporting. “Where do you get this?”

He laughs. “It’s a lingerie bag from Bed Bath and Beyond.”

Tom, who is sitting near me explains, “Hummingbird banding supplies don’t come off the shelf so we have to get real creative.”

Holding hummingbirds waiting to be banded

The hummingbird queue for weighing and measuring.

Part naturalist, part scientist, part jeweler

To call the bands “little” is a gross understatement. They are tiny bands of aluminum with numbers imprinted on them. They come to SABO from the American Ornithological Union (AOU) not as bands, but as strips, which Sheri and her team have to cut up then make into tiny loops channeling the skilled craftsman of a jeweler.

hummingbird banding bands

The teeny tiny bands and numbers.

bird bands for hummingbirds

Small, medium, large and extra large bands, relative to hummingbirds, of course.

Bands aren’t one-size-fits-all. They have bands ready for the smallest hummingbird (the Calliope Hummingbird at 2 3/4″ in length) to the largest (the Blue-throated Hummingbird at 5 1/4″ in length) that fly through the San Pedro River conservation area. It’s this area that makes it attractive for banding and studying as it shows the importance of a river as a critical migratory corridor. “One of the biggest challenges in migratory birds is the need for a stopover to fatten up and refuel,” Tom reminds me.

SABO bands and records data on over 500 hummingbirds in a year. This enables the tracking of migration schedules and reproductive cycles, and lets us know how long birds can live. The more we can learn and know about birds the more we understand about the state of our environment and where things are in balance and where they’re off balance. Birds aren’t here just for our amusement and enjoyment, but they’re part of our planet’s delicate ecosystem. Just think food chain. No birds? Well, then be prepared to be up to your eyeballs in insects and resulting diseases.

Hummingbird banding recording data

A volunteer records for Sheri.

Data for hummingbird banding

This card shows the data for a female black-chinned hummingbird that has been recaptured two times after its original banding.

As Sheri inspects each hummingbird  I marvel at two things: Sheri’s nurturing sense about her examination (“Oh, you’re a little one,” she coos) and that, with the exception of one that managed to escape, each bird remains still throughout the measuring, weighing and banding. “Oh, I just love hummingbirds. They’re so cute,” I say stupidly and ashamed that I couldn’t have chosen more sophisticated words around such knowledgeable people.

Sheri chuckles and then says, “Hummingbirds are the gateway drug to birding,” I nod my head in agreement. She then grabs a straw and puts it in her mouth and begins to blow lightly on the underside of a hummingbird and I see that her breath opens up the feathers, revealing a light, pink tummy. “What does that tell you?” I ask as I lean in to get a closer look. With the straw still in her mouth she tells me that it shows her how much fat it has.

Sheri measures the hummingbird.

Sheri measures the hummingbird.

This is how you weigh a hummingbird.

This is how you weigh a hummingbird.

Checking for fat.

Checking for fat. “Sonic Burger has the best straws,” Sheri tells me.

The examination is now over for this little bird. Sheri then hands the bird to a volunteer standing by and I’m amazed that during the handoff the bird doesn’t escape their fingers and that they are able to do the whole thing gently.  Every hummingbird is rewarded with a drink before they are let go. “It was the feeder they were coming for in the first place,” the volunteer reminds me as she holds the tiny bird between her thumb and fingers and swoops the bird down to the feeder. It reminded me of a mom playing airplane with a spoonful of baby food coming in for a landing in her toddler’s mouth. “It helps give the bird the feeling of flying in to get a drink.” the volunteer explained. “They’re more apt to drink that way.”

Fueling up after the weighing and measuring.

Fueling up after the weighing and measuring.

Broad-billed Hummingbird freshly banded and ready for release.

Volunteer holds a Broad-billed Hummingbird freshly banded and ready for release.

Time to go now

After each little hummer has had its drink, she places the bird in my hand and we go through this pattern of waiting as the bird contemplates, I imagine, if it’s now safe to take off. Some fly off after about 15 seconds and others need to muster up the courage to dart up into the blue sky. We repeat this process with several birds, with my husband and I each taking turns.

Catching his breath and getting ready to go.

Catching his breath and getting ready to go. Note the new tiny band on his leg.

It’s during the precious little moment when the hummingbird is still that you realize someone has flipped a switch and turned everything off. He’s not flitting around or buzzing near your ear like George Jetson. He’s quiet. He’s still. The frenetic pace of the world that often matches the 80-times-per-second wingbeats of the hummingbird have come to a screaching halt. Time has stopped and I wait for that moment for the little bird to signal that it’s ready, that it’s time to flip the switch back on.

And when it does, it’s magic. (Watch video below.)

 Postscript

When I returned home, I showed my friend and her 11-year-old daughter my photos from this trip. The young girl’s face lit up when I showed the close up of the tiny bird in my hand. “Mom, I want to hold a hummingbird!” she pleaded.

Yes, we should all want to hold hummingbirds.