Hummingbird Banding (Or How to Get a Tiny Bracelet on a VERY tiny bird)

I first published this a in 2011! Yesterday, August 24, 2014, we recaptured an adult, female hummingbird who was first captured on August 24, 2008! That means that this girl is at least 7 years and 2 months old! Many people have asked about hummingbird banding since then, so I thought I’d republish with some new photos – especially adding this one of my “white-haired” friend. Yes, those are white feathers. Ornithologists aren’t certain what causes this, but they do know that the feathers sometimes come and go. It could be dietary. It could be other factors

My "elderly" friend!

My “elderly” friend!

Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve loved hummingbirds. Their beauty and swiftness are a given, but their feistiness speaks to me. Have you ever heard them squeal? Oh, my! It sounds like someone is pulling their little wings off. Of course they aren’t, it’s just their vocalization.

When we moved to Michigan (almost 8 years ago), we had the great fortune to get to know Allen Chartier with whom we’d “chatted” online for a number of years. Allen is a bird bander who works with all birds, but is also able to work with hummingbirds. Banding hummingbirds (as with all birds) helps science learn more about migration and breeding habits. It also enables you to get up close and very personal with flying jewels.

So, how do you catch a hummingbird? In our case, we use a trap. Now, don’t start envisioning something with jaws and metal teeth. The trap we most often use looks like a wire-mesh drum. A feeder hangs in the middle , with a door that opens (and closes via remote) and a human arm access door on the opposite side. I’ll go more into that in a bit.

It’s time to take down all the feeders. We do this to limit the sugar optons to the feeder inside the trap. At first, the birds will be confused. We never start banding at first light so that the birds can get their first feedings of the day. They will find the feeder inside the trap. They will do the “hummer dance” first. The hummer dance is when they hover all around the outside of the trap looking for a way to get to that feeder. Once they find the open door, they go in. We try to wait until they are on the backside of the feeder or perched. Then, we push the remote and the door closes. They’re in the trap.

It’s my turn! I open the access door and stick my arm in. This is the time where I still hold my breath. I know these little buggers are tough, but they are also delicate creatures and catching them gently but firmly is an acquired ability.

Once I’ve got him/her I quickly move them to a mesh bag. The bag holds them comfortably and they usually calm right down when they know they can’t fly off.

It’s all up to the bander now. He takes the bird from the bag and places it in a nylon “sock” and affixs the band around the hummer’s leg.

He then weighs the bird and takes measurements. The measurements include looking at the bird’s bill. If it has corregations, it’s a hatch-year bird. Tail feathers are checked and measured as is the wing. The bird is also checked for body fat (especially as migration comes close) and females are checked for either carrying an egg or showing a brood-patch. A brood-patch is an area on the female bird that shows wear from sitting on a nest.

Once all the measurements are taken, the final step is to color-mark the bird’s head. In Allen’s case, this is similar to colored “white out” which will wear off over time.  This way, I can recognize the birds that have bands each time they come to the feeders. Another benefit to color marking the bird is that it’s immediately recognizable should it go back into the trap. It would be released immediately. The later it gets in the season (after July in Michigan), Allen will stop color marking.

So, what happens if the bird already has a band when captured for the first time? The same procedures are followed (well, except for adding the band). The bird gets two color dots.  Once the band is on, all the measurements are taken, and the color dot(s) is on, the great part comes … releasing the bird. You hold your palm open and the bird sits until it’s comfortable that It can go. Sometimes that’s immediate. Sometimes the bird sits a few seconds. Take advantage of that moment to feel it’s tiny heart beating. It reminds me of a cat’s purr.

Frequently, the bird hasn’t figured out it can fly away. Gently rocking it side to side generally gets the bird to realize it’s no longer being held. A gentle puff of wind under it’s tail can be utilized should the rocking not work.  Occasionally, the bird will sit longer, but that’s pretty rare. They don’t want to stay, they just don’t realize that they can go. Once you see the bird fly away, it’s a great feeling.

If you ever get the opportunity to watch or get involved with hummingbird banding, go for it! It’s the closest you can get to one of nature’s masterpieces.

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9 thoughts on “Hummingbird Banding (Or How to Get a Tiny Bracelet on a VERY tiny bird)

    • It IS an amazing feeling. Most often they don’t linger very long. It’s the rare occasion that they sit for any time, but it’s always magical. Took me a long time to get brave enough to retrieve from the trap. They squeal and beg and totally act up like you’re killing them. It’s very disconcerting – every time. I just keep reminding myself that I do know what I’m doing.

  1. The whole process of banding is cool, but to me the most amazing part is when we recapture a banded bird. When Allen looks it up in the database and tells me it was originally banded in our yard (maybe as a hatch year male/female) and here we are 1, 2, 3 or more years later and the bird is back in our yard.
    I mean, these little jewels, that easily fit in the palm of your hand and only weigh a few grams, migrate from somewhere in Central America every year, and this one found its way back to where it was hatched. That is awesome!!

    • I couldn’t agree more! I’m so glad you added this. So little is still known about the lives of these birds; however, thanks to people like Allen Chartier, Bob Sargent, Nancy Newfield, Lanny Chambers and others, we are learning more and more each day. I’m really glad that “our” babies like our yard well enough to come back!

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