>>Bird Conservation

In a Heartbeat

Across the country, people from all walks of life are jumping at the chance to band hummingbirds full-time, often as unpaid volunteers. Their devotion is solving a number of mysteries about these diminutive dynamos.

By Doreen Cubie / Photography by Susan Salinger

As felt through one's fingertips, a ruby-throated hummingbird's body is much warmer than our own, and its heartbeat much faster

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 entertaining—as well as educating—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.

The birds' "anklets" revealed a remarkable fact: After navigating across two countries, most of the banded hummers returned to the exact garden and yards where they had summered the year before.

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.

Ned and Gigi Batchelder belong to the community of enthusiasts who study western hummingbirds. Like the Sargents, they have upended their lives to do hummingbird research. Five years ago the Batchelders—who were employed for 25 years in the energy industry—moved from Oklahoma to Montana, where they work winters at local jobs in order to spend all summer banding calliope, rufous, broad-tailed, and black-chinned hummingbirds.

Since the spring of 2001 the Batchelders have banded 6,000 hummers. The majority were rufouses and calliopes; the latter, just over three inches long, are the smallest long-distance avian migrants in the world. Every year calliopes tackle a perilous 5,000-mile round-trip migration, from the mountains of the western United States and Canada to south-central Mexico and back again. In 2003 the Batchelders recaptured 228 birds they had originally banded in the previous two years. The birds' "anklets" revealed a remarkable fact: After navigating across two countries, most of the banded hummers returned, almost to the day, to the exact gardens and yards where they had summered the year before.

The hummer and I gaze at each other. 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. Suddenly it lifts off and is gone.

The reason, says Jesse Grantham, former director of bird conservation for Texas Audubon, who is now working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restore California condors, is that "hummers are trying to stick to a 10,000-year-old strategy of being at a certain place at a certain time, because that's when factors are ideal in those particular locations. The problem is that the habitat during this time period has totally changed."

Hummingbird festivals, such as the one Grantham started in 1988 in Rockport, Texas, and the annual celebration he started in 1999 at the Strawberry Plains Audubon Center, are timed to take advantage of this predictable peak migration. "Sometimes it takes a spectacle to get people excited about birds," says Madge Lindsay, the center's executive director (and the executive director of Mississippi Audubon), who doubled the festival's attendance by first inviting the banders there in 2002. "We have so many hummers migrating through—a river of birds from Canada to the Gulf Coast—that the sky is thick with them. It's pretty spectacular."

Calliope, Allen's, Costa's, Lucifer, buff-bellied, and rufous hummingbirds have all been named to the Audubon WatchList of at-risk species. Most have been singled out because small breeding and winter ranges increase their vulnerability to potential disease outbreaks, natural disasters, and habitat destruction. The rufous hummingbird, however, is of particular concern. Some of these hummers travel about 6,000 miles round-trip between the forests of central Mexico and coastal Alaska each year—measured in body lengths, it's the longest migration of any bird in North America. According to the Breeding Bird Survey, conducted annually by the U.S. Geological Survey and the Canadian Wildlife Service, from 1966 to 2002 the species has experienced a decline of 2.7 percent per year across its range.

To refuel for extended migrations, hummingbirds require stopovers in reliably nectar-rich habitat. But these areas are disappearing, not just in Mexico and Central America but throughout the United States. "As the birds move south, their habitat becomes more and more degraded. They waste a lot of time looking in flowers that aren't going to provide them with any reward in food or calories," says Grantham. Prime habitat all along their migration routes is being chewed up by everything from suburban sprawl and pesticides to invasive species and chip mills.

While banding may track the physical condition of hummers and how they are being affected by this habitat loss, homeowners needn't wait for data to prove they should take an active role in protecting them. "The average person can't really do anything to help peregrine falcons or mountain plovers, but they can do something for hummingbirds," says Sheri Williamson, author of A Field Guide to Hummingbirds of North America, who bands hummers with her husband, Tom Wood, at a station along Arizona's San Pedro River. "We underestimate the role yards and gardens have played in migration corridors," she says. A yard full of trumpet creeper and salvia and other hummingbird plants is not going to replace lost breeding areas, "but it may be able to reduce the impact of habitat destruction along migration routes."

Flowering gardens are vital, especially to ruby-throats, some of which make a nonstop, 18-hour, 500-mile-plus flight across the Gulf of Mexico. In order to complete this arduous journey, they must put on layers of fat, which their bodies burn for fuel as they fly. By hanging around a lush yard—free of pesticides, since insects can make up more than half of a hummer's diet—migrating ruby-throats gain grams in no time at all. One young female, for example, weighed 3.06 grams when Bob Sargent first trapped and banded her in mid-September at his Alabama home. Five days later, when he caught her again, she weighed a hefty 5.31 grams—well on her way to doubling her weight.

Providing sugar-water feeders could also be critical to the birds' survival, says Grantham. "We look at them as entertainment, but to hummingbirds, it may be a life-and-death struggle." Hummers are naturally solitary animals, he says, so seeing them piled up at a feeder, chasing and fighting one another, is a sign that they may really need the food.

As the first day of the Strawberry Plains celebration stretches on into the afternoon, some folks are sitting on the sunporch of the center's Civil War–era house, watching the hummers at the feeders. Others follow Kristin Lamberson, the center's horticulturist, to learn about native plants beneficial to hummingbirds. There are also demonstrations with live bats, T-shirts to buy, and guided walks on the nature trail. But almost everyone keeps circling back to see the banding.

That's just fine with Bob Sargent, who is banding at the festival, too. "We want them to hold the birds in the palms of their hands, hear their heartbeat, release them," he says. "It follows that if they get hooked on birds, soon they will learn they have to have habitat to survive. We try to make people aware as subtly as we can that they have great power as individuals. They come to these festivals to have a good time but go away with a feeling of importance."

When too many onlookers begin to congregate near the tables, Sargent picks up a female bird from Fred Bassett and moves off to the side, taking some of the people with him. "You can put seven or eight of these birds in an envelope and mail it for a first-class stamp," Sargent says, holding up the young hummer. "They weigh less than a penny."

He pauses to give the bird a taste of sugar water from a feeder. It drinks readily, lapping up the sweet liquid much like a cat laps milk. Senior citizens with camcorders, on a bus trip from Memphis, move in next to several families and a man dressed in hunting camouflage. When Sargent finishes his talk, he gently puts the hummingbird on the hand of a 10-year-old girl. "They're special birds," he tells me after the hummer flies away. "She'll never forget that."


Doreen Cubie spent two weeks volunteering for Bob Sargent's Hummer/Bird Study Group, helping to mist-nest and band migrating songbirds at Fort Morgan, Alabama. She hangs her own hummingbird feeder in her yard in Charleston, South Carolina.


© 2004 National Audubon Society

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How to Help Hummers
by Jennifer Bogo

Hummingbirds are marathon migrators; just like other athletes, they need to fuel up before a big event. Whether it's a ruby-throated hummingbird cruising 500 miles across the Gulf of Mexico or a rufous hummingbird winging its way 3,000 miles from Mexico to Alaska, these thumb-size creatures must double their weight before they migrate, layering on fat that provides the energy they burn during the flight. Today their journeys are proving increasingly arduous. Prime habitat all along their migration routes is being developed or fragmented, making the nectar-rich plants the birds need much harder to come by. The good news is that homeowners can play a vital role in helping hummers plump up.

Flower Power
Nectar is the most balanced source of nutrition for hummingbirds, so fill your yard with nectar-producing plants, vines, shrubs, and trees. Even a window box can help. A hummer's unique ability to hover allows it to feed on as many as 1,500 flowers a day (eating half its body weight in sugar), while at the same time acting as an important pollinator of widely dispersed plant species. Group similar plants together, and choose annuals and perennials that bloom at different times of year, so there will be a steady supply of flowers. Hummers are most attracted to odorless, tubular blossoms, from which they draw nectar with long split tongues. They also have favorite colors: Red is best, followed by oranges and pinks, purples, blues, and yellows. Aim for native plants like trumpet honeysuckle, bee balm, and salvia (red sage), which offer the birds significantly more nectar than cultivated hybrids; exotics like bougainvillea only trick hummingbirds into wasting precious energy as they try to drink from empty blossoms. Since native plants evolved with the climate as well as with hummers, they generally require a lot less care, too. Check with your local nursery to identify flowering plants adapted to your area, or find a native-plant nursery near you at www.plantnative.org.

Feeding Frenzy
Hummingbird feeders can provide supplemental food critical to a bird's survival, especially during fall and winter. (Contrary to a common fear, feeders won't stop hummers from migrating south. They use an internal clock and cues like day length to tell them when to go.) Instead of having one large feeder, it's better to hang several smaller ones in different locations around your yard, far enough apart that the hummers can't see one another, which prevents one bird from dominating the rest. The feeders should be filled with sugar water, made by combining four parts hot water to one part white sugar (not honey!), boiled for one to two minutes, and hung in the shade to discourage fermentation. It's not necessary to add red food coloring—the hummers will find the sugar water anyway. Be sure to change it regularly—as soon as it gets cloudy, or about twice weekly in warm weather—and clean the feeders about once a week with a solution of one part white vinegar to four parts water. To learn more about hummingbird behavior
and tips for attracting them, visit www.audubonathome.audubon.

Bug Juice
Eliminating pesticides in your yard can be a real boon to hummingbirds, since protein from spiders and insects like mosquitoes, aphids, and gnats can make up more than half of an adult's diet. Since young hummers still in the nest feed almost exclusively on small insects, a chemical-free yard—containing some insect-pollinated flowers as well as plants that are pollinated by hummers—is crucial. To provide the birds at your feeder with extra protein, hang a basket with overripe fruit or banana peels nearby to attract tiny fruit flies.

Liquid Comfort
Though hummingbirds get most of the moisture they need from nectar, they also drink water, and they bathe frequently—
even in the pools of droplets that collect on leaves. Provide your yard with a constant source of water from a drip fountain attachment or a fine misting device. You can also give the little birds a boost by adding a couple of flat rocks to a birdbath.

Plant the Town Red
Encourage your neighbors to make their yards hummingbird-friendly—an entire swath of habitat running through a neighborhood is much more valuable to migrating birds than scattered patches. Large chunks of land owned by a city or a business are often dominated by mowed lawns; tell city planners and corporate landowners that their property would be put to much better use if planted with flowering natives. You should also become a more informed voter, and take political action to protect existing habitat in your own community.

Banding Together
By attaching an aluminum band with a unique code to a bird's leg, a hummingbird bander can help further our understanding of hummers' behavior and their requirements for survival. This information, and the data from each subsequent recapture, is sent to the National Bird Banding Laboratory in Maryland for analysis. Hummingbirds caught overwintering east of the Mississippi River are of particular interest, so if you live in this region and see one in your yard after November 15, report it to the Hummer/Bird Study Group (hummerbsg@aol.com; 205-681-2888; www.hummingbirdsplus.org). It will forward your information to the licensed bander nearest you.

Party On!
Annual hummingbird festivals are a fun way to enjoy fall migration, see banders in action, and—if you're lucky—even hold a hummer in your hand before sending it on its way. Check out the following events: Hummingbird Migration Celebration, Strawberry Plains Audubon Center, Holly Springs, Mississippi, September 10–12 (ms.audubon.org; 662-252-1155); Hummer/Bird Celebration, Rockport, Texas, September 16–19 (www.rockport-fulton.org; 800-242-0071); XTreme Hummingbird Xtravaganza, Lake Jackson, Texas, September 11 (www.gcbo.org; 979-480-0999); Folsom Hummingbird Festival, Folsom, Louisiana, September 11 (mizellfarms@yahoo.com; 985-796-9309).