Photos by Marc Hagen
Hummingbirds are one of the most beloved birds, but their petite size and frantic pace of life make them challenging subjects to study. Even the most basic questions about their lives can be difficult to answer. Therefore, bird banding is a valuable process. Information collected from banded birds helps to monitor populations, study behavior and ecology, assess the effects of environmental changes, and educate people about the birds and their environment.
The banding of hummingbirds is a carefully regulated process and is performed only by trained and licensed banders. Bird banding is regulated under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The Bird Banding Laboratory (BBL), a division of the United Stated Geological Service located in Laurel, Maryland, administers the banding program. The BBL authorizes trained personnel to capture and band wild birds, including hummingbirds, for research and educational purposes. Hummingbird bands are issued only to banders who have received training, a federal permit, and a separate authorization which is required due to the specialized knowledge and skills involved in banding hummingbirds.
Bands are issued on flat sheets with pre-printed band numbers. The bands must be carefully cut from the thin sheet of aluminum into narrow strips, the edges smoothed and the band shaped before use. Each hummer is fitted with a tiny band containing a letter and five numerals to identify it.
Capturing these high-spirited fliers requires skill. Fortunately for researchers, hummingbirds can be trapped. They can be lured to a trap by their voracious appetite. A feeder in a trap serves as bait. When a bird visits the feeder a release mechanism is triggered to drop the trap door. Once a bird is trapped, it is carefully extracted from the trap and transferred to the banding table. The bird is first checked for a band. If there is one, the number is checked against the researcher’s records and the Bird Banding Laboratory records. If there isn’t a band, the bird is fitted with one and data collected. Data on species, sex, size, age, condition, and the location and date of its capture are recorded. Measurements are taken of the wing chord (length of the flattened wing from wrist to tip of the longest primary feather), tail length, mass, and bill length. Hummingbirds are also often identified with a temporary color-mark so that it may be identified again without re-trapping. The temporary mark disappears as plumage is replaced. After the bird is banded and released, all bird banding information is carefully recorded by the bander and the data is sent to the North American Bird Banding Laboratory at where banding records are maintained.