A flash of harmless lightning,
A mist of rainbow dyes,
The burnished sunbeams brightening,
From flower to flower he flies.
- John Banister Tabb
Earlier this month, I got to spend a few magical hours banding hummingbirds with certified master bird bander, Fred Bassett, from Alabama. Fred has worked with birds for over 20 years and has banded thousands of hummingbirds. He is in Alaska this month, moving from location to location, banding rufous hummingbirds. This effort is trying to help prove the theory that at least a portion of the rufous hummingbirds that overwinter in the southeast U.S. come from breeding populations in Alaska. When I learned that Fred would be in Juneau, I immediately contacted him and offered our feeders for banding.
About a week before Fred arrived, it seemed the hummingbirds had largely disappeared from our yard. Concerned about wasting Fred’s time while here, I let him know and he assured me there were likely more hummingbirds at our feeders than we thought. Sure enough—in less than 3 hours he had successfully caught and banded 17 different hummingbirds—2 males and 15 females! I guess this is why he is a “master” bird bander.
Fred’s set-up is really neat and portable, and he carries it all in his truck with him. His gear includes a couple of cages that he sets up around the hummingbird feeders, tables to set the cages on, a string of fishing line on a fishing reel to shut the cage door from a distance, and then various accoutrements to band and take data on the birds: mesh bags, a rack to hang the bags, a caliper, a scale, lots of tiny bird bands, and special pliers to attach the bands. To see all this in action is amazing!
Within minutes of setting up the cages, we had our first hummer—a female and the largest of the day at 3.9 grams. Fred gently retrieved her from the cage and carried her to our patio table where the real work took place. Placing her in a mesh bag, he readied his equipment for the examination.
First, he carefully removed the bird to examine her and record such info as sex, weight, and length of beak and body. The weighing process was remarkable. He literally wrapped the bird, who at this point lay so calmly I initially feared it was dead, into the toe of a pair of panty hose and placed it on the scale. Next came the banding—he removed her from the panty hose and just seconds later, the band was on! Fred told us that the band would never be tight on the bird’s leg, even when it was full grown. A few body measurements with a caliper and the bird was ready to go.
The release back to the wild was really magical—Fred told me to hold out my hand and he gently laid the bird there. She still didn’t move. When I asked Fred if she was ok, he told me that she just didn’t know that she was free yet. I could feel her heartbeat in my hand, which was astonishing on so many levels. What a gift I received from that moment alone! As I gently held her, Fred blew a puff of breath on her body, and she instantaneously flew off.
We repeated this process 16 more times. Our longest lag was no more than 10 minutes and one time we had 3 birds in bags awaiting banding at the same time. Here are a few things I learned about rufous hummingbirds (Selaphorus rufus) that day:
- Females are larger than males, and both sexes typically weigh between 3.2 to 4.0 grams, are 2.8-3.5 inches long, and have a wingspan of about 4.3 inches.
- Males have a white breast, rufous face, upperparts, flanks and tail and an iridescent orange-red throat patch (gorget).
- Females have green upperparts with some white, some iridescent orange feathers in the center of the throat, and a dark tail with white tips and rufous base.
- They have no feathers on their belly—only pink skin.
- This species lays 2 eggs, which are tended by the female only.
- They are sometimes called the feistiest hummingbird in North America, as they tirelessly chase away other hummingbirds from their territories and feeders.
- They feed on nectar from flowers using a long extendible tongue or catch insects on the wing. These birds require frequent feeding while active during the day and become torpid at night to conserve energy.
- Their breeding habitat is open areas and forest edges in western North Americafrom southern Alaska to California. This bird nests further north than any other hummingbird. The female builds a nest in a protected location in a shrub or conifer.
- They are wide-ranging. Many overwinter in Mexico, but this hummingbird is also likely to stray into eastern North America. There has been an increasing trend for them to migrate southeast to winter in warmer climates like Florida or on the Gulf Coast, rather than in Mexico. Fred told us about one rufous that was banded in Tallahassee, Florida and recaptured in Chenega Bay,Alaska!
- If you put up hummingbird feeders, put in 1 part of sugar to 4 parts of water—a richer mix can hurt the birds by affecting their kidneys. And be sure to change the mixture before it grows cloudy or discolored-- during hot weather, sugar water ferments rapidly to produce alcohol, which is toxic to the birds.
I have been lucky enough to witness some amazing events in nature, but my afternoon with Fred will forever be in my memory. I have always loved hummingbirds, and now have an enhanced appreciation for what amazing creatures they are. Fred is one lucky guy to work with these birds all the time! If you’d like to learn more about Fred and his work, visit: www. hummingbirdresearch.net