While enjoying your backyard filled with active hummingbirds zipping in and out, landing on the feeder for a quick refreshment or courageously fighting to maintain a territory, it is enticing to recognize each hummingbird for its characteristics, and identifiable differences.
Just as important as it is for the backyard hummingbird enthusiast to accurately identify its visitors, there is an official organization in North America that bands, tracks and releases these jewels regularly with minimal interference in their natural habitat.
What is the purpose of hummingbird banding?
The purpose of banding hummingbirds is to collect data to study the status and trends of hummingbird migration patterns, biometrics, and environmental health. Data is sent to the Bird Banding Laboratory (BBL) for research analysis, monitoring, identifying, and alerting about any endangered hummingbird species or ecosystem collapse.
The banding of birds, also known as ringing, has a long history dating back to the Middle Ages, however, hummingbird banding is considered a new practice officially established within the past 100 years. In general, there are approximately 4,000 bird banders in North America.
Since banding of hummingbirds is a specialized limited field there are less than 200 officially trained and licensed hummingbird banders in the United States.
The capture and release method of banding has been utilized as the most efficient and humane technique of collecting scientific data.
History of Hummingbird Banding
Modern bird banding originated in 1890 by the Danish biologist Hans Christian C. Mortensen. In 1909, the American Bird Banding Association (ABBA) was founded and originated by ornithologist Leon Jacob Cole, President. In 1920, this led to the creation of the Bird Banding Laboratory (BBL) currently located in Laurel, Maryland. The BBL is a branch of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) who issues permits. In 1923, the BBL in conjunction with the Canadian Bird Banding Organization (BBO) formed a collaboration allowing for the sharing of gathered information for the benefit of both countries.
Hummingbirds in the United States are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, a law prohibiting the taking, killing, capturing, selling, trading and transporting of any protected migratory bird species without authorization by the Department of Interior U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services.
Since banding of hummingbirds is a specialized field protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, federal permits are required by trained licensed hummingbird banders in the United States to capture and handle wild outdoor birds.
Banding Hummingbirds to Identify Migration
The original purpose of banding was to track and document hummingbird migration routes. Since then banding has expanded to collecting multiple forms of data for researchers’ analysis. This array of information helps identify problems before they become a major issue and also helps with tracking and monitoring current trends in relationship to past historical statistics.
Hummingbird migration is highly dependent on information and specifics accumulated through years of collective banding. The most successful time to capture and band hummingbirds is during the spring and fall migration.
In Idaho City, ID the hummingbird banding season begins in May at the Intermountain Bird Observatory’s (IBO) research station in conjunction with the outreach unit of Boise State University. This activity is performed biweekly by capturing, documenting, banding then releasing hummingbirds during the summer through August. The banding takes place in the private home and backyard of a designated specialized licensed banding professional. The public may reserve a date and time to observe the banding process in action; making it a popular activity. Identified hummingbirds in these regions include Black-chinned, Rufous, and Calliope.
San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Visitor Center in Sierra Vista, Arizona is another banding site. In Southeastern Arizona there are 10 documented species of hummingbirds migrating through the San Pedro River Greenbelt. These hummingbirds use this green belt passageway to travel north to their breeding and nesting grounds during the spring then travel south on their return to the tropics during the winter. This lay-over resting habitat is crucial for successful migration. This banding station is also open to the public and encourages participation in the observation and study of the banding sessions in progress.
The best time to observe migrating hummingbirds in Arizona is during the months of April, May, July, August, and September.
During the month of June, there is less migration activity because the hummingbirds are actively nesting. The most diversified season to witness hummingbird migration is from August through September. During the peak of the season, banders are able to catch, document and release at least 30 hummingbirds in a single 2-hour period.
One of the ten species of hummingbirds observed in Arizona during migration is the Rufous hummingbird. These birds travel a minimum of 2700 miles to and from their nesting and wintering stations. The data gathering and research through banding these hummingbirds has verified that their migration routes and patterns rarely deviate and are annually consistent with a slight one or two day variation.
A third banding station is Alabama Fort Morgan Banding Station. Recognized as one of the globally important bird areas by the American Bird Conservancy, Alabama Fort Morgan Banding Station, is run by the Hummer/Bird Study Group, Inc. This group sets up in Fort Morgan State Historic Park during the hummingbird migration season for 2 weeks in mid-April and again in the fall. The public may reserve a date to observe the banding process in action. This is a migratory route for Ruby-throated hummingbirds as they travel north to their nesting locations and rest while continuing their return south to their wintering site.
Because of the data collected over the years through banding, we know in particular to their species, that the Rufous and Ruby-throated hummingbirds use the same migration routes every year.
Banding to Track Hummingbird Biometrics
Biometrics is the technical term for body measurements and calculations. By collecting specific data on the types and species of hummingbirds that migrate through a banding zone, it is possible to study and understand the general health of the hummingbird population. A major portion of information obtained is as follows:
- Wing chord
- Tail length
- Plumage condition characteristics/Molting
- Bill length
- Mass/Visible fat content
- Signs of pregnancy or recent egg-laying
- Odd colored feathers
- Presence of parasites
Tana Beasley, an avid hummingbird enthusiast intrigued with collecting hummingbird biometrics, is the holder of the only federal hummingbird banding permit in Arkansas. In the fall of 2009, she started the banding program at the Potlatch Conservation Education Center (PCEC). This Center is a branch of the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission associated with the Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It provides an outdoor educational classroom for hands-on learning.
She has banded over 3,000 Ruby-throated hummingbirds during the spring and summer months through the years. Her data has informed and educated the public about their migration patterns.
Check out the video of a Ruby-throated hummingbird being banded at the Potlatch Conservation Education Center (PCEC) at Cook’s Lake.
By studying the results of the collected information through the capture and release method, it is possible to hypothesize or determine the life expectancy and general overall health of the hummingbird species as they migrate through the banding zones.
For instance, by tracking the increased fat content of the hummingbird indicates a sign of good health and is the fuel the hummingbirds use for migration and nesting. It also determines the season’s ability to produce enough flora and fauna to satisfy the needs of the hummingbirds. This in turn identifies the status of the present ecological system.
Identifying pollen type and content on the hummingbirds helps to analyze where the hummingbirds are feeding.
The condition of the plumage including the presence or absence of mites can help in considering if the birds are stressed or diseased which helps in documenting the general overall health of the hummingbird.
Also, noted are identifying markers ie: the size and color of their gorget, the length of their wingspan, individual scars and whether the females are pregnant or have already given birth. Since hummingbirds have a life expectancy of 3-5 years and tend to maintain a routine, being able to classify them with their specific markers helps the researcher in formulating patterns, long term population trends and survival rates over time.
If a hummingbird is recaptured and recognized through banding procedures, that data is linked back to its original banded location.
This signals to both banding locations the distance the hummingbird has migrated outside of its original area. It also tells the second banding station that a new “vagrant” or “rare” species has been introduced into their region. This can further initiate increased questions and research for this aberrant change.
Banding Hummingbirds to Track Environmental Health
Deviation from yearly migration findings contributed to the BBL database helps determine newly located species of hummingbirds that are adapting to different areas. This information not only alerts the researchers of any changes in the climate, but also tracks the health of the environment sending immediate attention to issues that are causing our ecosystem or habitats to be mal-aligned.
When a bander captures a hummingbird and sees first hand the tattered head feathers and dorsal wings, the damaged beak with tumor growths or signs of malnutrition, this alerts the researcher about possible habitat changes affecting these hummingbirds.
When hummingbirds are captured by banders and brightly colored pollen located on their beak and head is noticed the pollen samples are collected for research on the vegetation and ecology of the area.
Gaining this viable information through banding helps researchers answer questions on environmental health.
The practice of banding is key to collective data gathering. This allows researchers to document and track the overall health of hummingbirds as well as their interactions and activities within the environment.
Yearly migration findings are entered into the BBL database to document newly located species of hummingbirds that are adapting to areas that otherwise would not have been considered.
Desired flower types that attract certain hummingbird species are identified by pollen count. Feeding locations provide insight on monitoring scientific data for current bird populations. This information shows working relationships between the flora and desired ecological environmental health.
A solid foundation of information is important in the formation of a feasible database from which to hypothesize. Therefore, when one data point is off center the whole database becomes skewed. Our ecological habitat is a fine intertwined web of hummingbird migration, biometrics and environmental ecological health.
Happy Hummingbird Watching!