Hanging with hummingbirds | News


Each morning as I drink my coffee I enjoy watching the hummingbirds at our feeders, sipping their morning beverage too. Anna’s Hummingbirds are relatively large hummingbirds, with green feathers and brilliant red throats. Allen’s Hummingbirds, though smaller, are the feistiest. We keep two feeders going because the Allen’s will drive all others away.

Allen’s Hummingbirds are found only in coastal California to southern coastal Oregon.  Their populations have plummeted over 80% due to loss of habitat. Feeders provide an important food source, as they must eat half their weight in nectar or sugar water each day, as well as insects in the breeding season.  

Anna’s Hummingbirds do not migrate. Once they have a territory with a reliable food source, they stick to it. 

Rufous Hummingbirds pass through Carpinteria in March, heading north. They return south in July via the Rocky Mountains in an elliptical migration pattern. Right now, the males are already traveling south, “trap-line feeding” on flowers and feeders, and are headed towards Mexico. The females and juveniles linger longer to build up their fuel reserves. Females do all the work of making nests and raising their two young. 

The Robson Valley near the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia, where I once worked as a park naturalist, is a critical breeding and feeding ground for Rufous Hummingbirds.

Birgit Stutz runs Falling Star Horse Ranch in the Robson Valley, and feeds hummingbirds. A publicly-available video posted to Facebook shows her many giant-sized feeders currently swarming with clouds of hummingbirds: facebook.com/reel/790635312732450. Be sure to listen to the audio to hear the roar of thousands of tiny wings. Hummingbirds are named for the sound of their wings. The feeders at the Stutz ranch sound more like an airport. 

“It is insane!” Stutz said. Right now, with the juveniles and females furiously feeding to put on fat for migration, she and her husband serve up to 43 cups of sugar water each day, feeding an estimated 4,000 hummingbirds. A ratio of 1:4 sugar to water is similar to what flowers naturally produce. A 20-pound bag of sugar lasts a few days. This is a record year she said, explaining, “We probably have double the number we had two years ago.” 2021 was the summer that the heat dome hit British Columbia. 

The health and populations of hummingbirds are sensitive to environmental conditions. Extreme heat will force birds to abandon their nests as will wildfires. Migration is getting more and more fraught with loss of habitat and extreme weather. Hummingbirds can easily run out of fuel if stops along their “trap-line” aren’t there. 

Hummingbirds are also hard to track. That’s where data from banding birds can help provide answers. But how do you band a tiny bird that flies so fast?

I recently got a front-row seat to a bird banding operation at the home of Doreen Olson near Okanagan Falls, British Columbia, where each year banders capture and record data on these tiny iridescent bullets. Three certified bird banders and several volunteers were set up in Doreen’s garden. Doreen and two other “trappers” sat in chair watching a feeder and holding a line attached to a net suspended overhead. 

The hummingbirds buzzed around the feeders. Once one was settled and drinking deeply, Doreen released the net, which dropped over the feeder like a curtain trapping the hummingbird – sometimes. This takes practice.

“Bird!” Doreen called out. Inside the net, the hummingbird sounded like a loud mosquito. The lead bander, Sue Elwell, put her hand inside the net and gently took the bird which was chirping angrily. “It’s a Rufous,” she said. In her decade of banding birds, she seems to know their language. “Rufous are feisty. The only words they know are swear words,” she grinned. 

Sue worked swiftly and carefully. She lay the bird on its back on a little piece of soft blue felt that works like a tiny straight jacket to protect its wings. She weighed the bird and took measurements: including beak and wing length. Measuring the leg, she selected the proper size from her many boxes of tiny bird bands. 

The numbered bands provide information about the bird’s life span, their breeding cycles and the importance of certain areas to them for nesting and migration routes. The data from the bands goes to federal scientists via the Canadian Wildlife Service to the U.S. Geological Survey in the United States. The USGS maintains the banding records for North America, issues the permits and distributes the bands to certified banders. 

On this day, Sue trapped one bird she had banded at Doreen’s seven years ago – a “recap,” or recapture. This was the smallest of them all: a Calliope hummingbird, a species that sometimes passes through Carpinteria in spring on its over 5,000-mile race-track shaped migration up the coast and down the Rockies.

Sue carefully set the Calliope on the scale on its back, with its little feet in the air. It remained motionless – for a time. A Calliope weighs 2.6 grams, half the weight of a credit card. She took my Visa and weighed it: 5.2 grams. 

All measurements were done in less than three minutes to minimize stress.

Banding complete, she gently removed the little straight jacket and offered the bird a drink from the feeder she had sitting on her table. It took a long deep drink, then in a blur, it flew off in a whir of wings.  

You can help hummers by keeping a hummingbird feeder year-round replenished with fresh sugar water (1:4 ratio). Do not use any other sugar than refined white sugar. Cleanliness and consistency are key. In return, the hummingbirds will reward you with endless pleasure. 

Nancy Baron is a naturalist and writer. She lives with her husband Ken Weiss on an organic avocado farm in the hills above Carpinteria. You can email her with comments or questions at baron@nceas.ucsb.edu.

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