Hummingbirds Up Close
Thu August 21, 2008
Hummingbirds Up Close
This is peak hummingbird season in the Carolinas. Thousands of the tiny iridescent birds are on the move and fattening up for a long migration.
Susan Campbell has learned some amazing facts about ruby-throated hummingbirds through her research. For example: They start their migration to Mexico and Central America for the winter on the exact same day and time every year. And despite their miniscule size, their memory of food sources is so vivid that they visit the very same feeders - and even the same flowers - year after year as they migrate.
"Right now we have caught our first hummingbird of the morning at the feeders here at Stowe with our pull string cage trap and we are preparing to band this bird," says Campbell, who will demonstrate the capture and banding of hummingbirds Saturday at Reedy Creek Park.
Campbell is one of only three people in North Carolina, and just a few hundred nationwide, licensed to band hummingbirds. She recently demonstrated the technique for hummingbird fans at Daniel Stowe Botanical Gardens. They watched curiously as she held the tiny birds nestled in what looks like . . .
"Yeah, that's the toe of a nylon stocking. It allows us to be able to work with the bird with two hands. And the bird is on its back and that's why it's so calm. They're not accustomed to being on their back, so it calms them down so we can work with them."
She weighs the bird and takes its measurements. (It's a young male, 2.4 grams). She snaps a tiny aluminum band around its leg printed with a unique set of numbers - like a social security number. She or another bander hopes to trap the bird again down the line and track its health and travel patterns.
It starts with the trap:
"It's a lot like fishing. . . it takes patience," Dottie Leonowicz says, laughing. She was in charge of trapping the birds during the Daniel Stowe Botanical Gardens demonstration.
Leonowicz e sits under a tent canopy about 20 feet from a simple wire cage with sugar water for bait. In her hand rests the string that will trigger the door shut when a bird enters the cage.
"There we go! Got him!" she says when the door shuts.
She gently traps the bird in her hand against the side of the cage and slips it into a white cloth bag.
The tiny bird is about the size of a silver dollar, but weighs closer to a dime. It buzzes and bounces inside the bag, like an angry fairy in a Disney cartoon.
Leonowicz hands off her catch to Campbell and heads back to her post at the trap. Once Campbell finishes measuring, weighing and banding it, she walks through the crowd with the bird in hand.
The whole process takes a matter of minutes. And then it's time to set him free.
"We're going to need to move out a little bit outside the tent. Would you like to help me let this fellow go? I promise it won't hurt!," Campbell says.
Campbell picks 12-year old Sax Rose from the crowd, while the others huddle around.
"I thought, there's no way it'll stay on my hand, but She just puts it on your hand, hangs onto its wings and just let's go of its wings and walks back and it just flies off.
Campbell says it's her favorite part of the demonstration.
"He may sit on your hand for a minute, but he's fidgety. I'm guessing he's probably just gonna zip away. . . alright, here we go. There he goes!"
And he's off to Mexico, or beyond. If he survives the treacherous journey, there's a good chance Campbell will meet up with him again. Ten years banding hummingbirds has taught her that he'll come back to the same feeders and flowers when migrates next year. That's already a pretty amazing thing to have learned from her work, but she'd like to know a lot more.
"If these guys could talk, they could sure tell us a story. Wish they could at times."