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

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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!

Blog post from 2011:

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.

Allen with Hummingbird "Trap"

Allen with Hummingbird “Trap”

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.

Mesh Bag

Mesh Bag

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.

Readying the Hummer for Weighing

Readying the Hummer for Weighing

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.

Hummer getting a band (Yes, they are VERY tiny)

Hummer getting a band (Yes, they are VERY tiny)

Measuring Wing Length

Measuring Wing Length


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.

Color Marked Bird (Before Release)

Color Marked Bird (Before Release)

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.

Waiting for Take-off

Waiting for Take-off

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.

Close up of female or hatch-year male

Close up of female or hatch-year male

This bird is probably a hatch-year (new baby) male, but can’t tell for certain if the throat is clear (adult female) or has light streaking where red feathers will come (hatch-year male).

This is what an adult, male Ruby-throated hummingbird looks like up close

This is what an adult, male Ruby-throated hummingbird looks like up close

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.

Isn't he Gorgeous?!

Isn’t he Gorgeous?!




Up Next: Hello Dolly!


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Appalachian Hummingbird Myth

If you’re reading this in email or on Facebook, click on the title! It will take you directly to the blog (an easier viewing page.) If you’re already in my  blog, WELCOME! (One more hint: If you click on any of the photos in the blog, they should open up in a browser window so you can get a better look!)

When I was a small child, we spent most of our summers in North Carolina. My “Aunt” Jean was one of my most favorite people in the whole world. She was from Waynesville, North Carolina. She was married to my mother’s
first cousin, “Uncle” Frank. She told me many stories about the Cherokee and the early fables of her home. Uncle Frank was with the Park Service, so they lived in some of the most beautiful areas of our country. Mostly we visited them in Elkin, NC and Gatlinburg, TN. Later, Waynesville became extremely important to me and I’ll recount that tale a little later.

This is the story that I believe led to my sweet “obsession” with hummingbirds.

Way back in time, the Cherokee believed that they and the animals could communicate. Indeed they believed that the animals and they were kin to each other, just in different forms.

Back then, they believed that tobacco was great medicine. There was only one tobacco plant, so there was great reverence for it. Great care was taken to assure that the plant grew and flourished. That was until the Great White Goose stole it for his own.

The Great White Goose took the tobacco to a land beyond the Hickory Gap. In the Hickory Gap lived evil spirits who hated the Cherokee. They were known to throw stones down on the Cherokee who tried to pass.

With the tobacco gone, many of the Cherokee elders became ill. There was great fear that they would die, so a young brave volunteered to go take the tobacco back from the Great White Goose. Sadly, the evil spirits saw the young brave and threw rocks down on him in the Hickory Gap. The animals stood by helplessly as the young man died, and went back to tell the humans of his loss.

As their friends, the humans, sickened, the animals said they would try to bring the tobacco back. The evil spirits didn’t hate the animals, so most of them got through Hickory Gap. However, the Great White Goose was wise to them. One after the other tried and failed. The Goose even killed the mole who tried to burrow underneath to get to the tobacco.

The humans despaired of ever getting the tobacco back. A revered old woman was on her death-bed and there was great sadness. An old man who had been praying and praying came forward and said that he felt that he knew a way to get the tobacco. He had asked the hummingbird for the secret of his quick flight. The hummingbird told the old magician his secret and a few of his feathers.

The next morning, after much praying, the old man rubbed himself with the feathers and turned himself into a hummingbird. He flew so swiftly and was so small that the evil spirits never noticed him. He flew forward and back, up and down, and darted here and there so that the Great White Goose never saw him. He took as much of the tobacco as he could carry and rushed back to the village.

It was too late for the old woman who had died during his flight. As glad as the villagers were to have some of the tobacco back, they were heartbroken at the death of the dear, old woman. The magician took some of the precious tobacco and smoked it and blew it into the woman’s nose. Miraculously, she came back to life. She begged the magician to use his magic one more time to bring the whole plant back and the body of the brave, young man who had died trying to help his people.

Once again, the old man prayed and sang to the Great Spirit to help him accomplish his mission. This time, he was transformed into a huge hummingbird. His wings were so loud and the wind so intense that the rocks fell in the Gap and frightened the evil spirits far into the caves and creases in the mountains – never to bother the humans again.

The Great White Goose was so startled by the giant hummingbird that he didn’t argue when the magician/ hummingbird took the tobacco plant. On the way home, the old man found the body of the young brave. He
prayed and prayed and blew tobacco into the nose of the lifeless youth. Another miracle occurred. The youth came back to life and helped carry the tobacco and the old man (who had turned back into a man from exhaustion from his hard work and use of magic) back to the village.

The villagers were so happy to see the old man, thrilled to have their tobacco plant back, and grateful for the return of the brave, young man, that they promised to care for the tobacco plant and share it with the animals and spread the seeds throughout the land.

I really enjoyed sharing this story with you. It goes way back in my memory to a wonderful time and a much-loved person in my life. Do you have stories of olden times that were recounted to you? I’d love for you to share them in a reply to this blog.

Up Next: We’ll see how this injury does. (It’s taken me a LONG time to get this down with the splint on.)

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