Banding Hummingbirds to Solve their Mysterious Ways
People from all walks of life jump at the chance to hold these creatures.
The first faint hint of fall has blown in overnight, finally breaking the heat and humidity of the Mississippi summer. Hundreds of ruby-throated hummingbirds have also flown into town, tiny neotropical migrants from points as far north as Canada, heading south to Mexico, Guatemala, even Panama. Near where I’m standing, some of these hummers begin jockeying for space at a bank of feeders, becoming a blur of green, ivory, and crimson as they chase one another through the morning sunshine and dogfight high into the September sky.
As I watch, one of the combatants peels off from the skirmish and dives down to a feeder hung inside a green wire cage. A trapdoor drops behind it, and soon the bird is being measured and weighed by Fred Bassett, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and former fighter pilot who, no stranger to dogfights, has now turned his full-time attention to these miniature flying machines.
Bassett, one of only 100 licensed hummingbird banders in the United States and Canada, is banding ruby-throats at the Hummingbird Migration Celebration at Strawberry Plains Audubon Center, just outside of the historic antebellum town of Holly Springs, in northwestern Mississippi. Three thousand people have flocked to the 2,500-acre former cotton plantation on this autumn weekend. With his quick wit and easy manner, Bassett is entertains—as well as educates—a large crowd of them.
The ruby-throat in his hand is a member of one of the most diverse bird families in the Western Hemisphere. There are more than 300 species of hummingbirds—the name comes from the sound made by their rapidly beating wings—and most spend their lives hovering and darting through the forests of the American tropics. Fewer than 20 of these species regularly move north of the Mexican border, though, and the habits of these remain poorly known. The birds’ tiny size and quick movements make them especially challenging to study. Banding is one way to keep tabs on hummers, so Bassett’s handiwork is helping to unlock some of the secrets of these mysterious little migrants.
Using a special pair of pliers, he closes an aluminum ring—provided by the National Bird Banding Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland—around the leg of the ruby-throat. “Every hummingbird gets a band with a combination of a letter and five numbers that will never be used again,” he explains to the people gathered around. If, in a year or two, this hummingbird is recaptured, the number on the band will be sent to the lab, along with information such as the bird’s location and weight. This will reveal how the individual bird is doing, but it will also help paint a picture of the population in general. “It takes 5,500 of these bands to equal an ounce,” Bassett says. He gently jiggles the bird’s leg band, showing us that it’s loose and doesn’t impede the hummer in any way. “It’s like wearing an anklet.”
As he finishes banding each bird, Bassett allows someone from the audience to release it. This time he carefully places the hummer on my outstretched hand. Only a month or so out of the nest, the young male has not yet acquired the iridescent throat feathers of an adult but is still cloaked in soft greens and whites. The bird doesn’t realize it is free and lies quietly as I cradle it in my palm.
The hummer and I gaze at each other. The bird’s bright eye—surprisingly unafraid—seems to study me. I can feel the quiver of its heartbeat, which flutters 250 times a minute at rest and more than 1,200 times a minute when it flies. (By contrast, the average resting human heart beats 72 times a minute.) Suddenly the hummer lifts off and is gone, streaking back to the feeders. It takes a bit of me along with it.
These little birds have inspired a huge passion among those who study them—the majority of whom are not scientists supported by grant money but are, like Bassett, unpaid volunteers. Take Bob Sargent and his wife, Martha. At one time they were just two people who fed birds in their backyard in Clay, Alabama. “But we had questions, especially about hummingbirds, that we could not find answers to,” says Bob. “We wanted to raise the window to where we could peek into their lives a little more. When you capture a bird and hold it in your hand, you really have an opportunity to examine it.” So the Sargents found someone who could teach them to band.
From there “it kind of snowballed,” Bob laughs. Today the former electrician and his wife run the Hummer/Bird Study Group, a nonprofit organization dedicated to researching hummingbirds and other neotropical migrants, and have become world-recognized authorities on ruby-throats. They have banded more than 30,000 hummers, and they train other people—including professional scientists—to band them, too. So far their 19 years’ worth of data has been revealing. Ruby-throats are the only hummingbirds that nest east of the Mississippi, but the Sargents’ banding network has documented 12 other hummingbird species, such as the calliope and Allen’s, that have overwintered at least occasionally in the eastern United States.