How to Band a Hummingbird

In this post, I’ll answer the number-one questions I get when I tell people I band hummingbirds: “Wow – but they’re so small! How do you do that? Does it hurt them? Why are you banding them?” First, though, what is bird banding? Bird banding is a process in which researchers capture birds and put a small, lightweight band on their leg (usually after taking weight, feather wear, and other measurements). Each band carries a unique number, and so makes the bird wearing it identifiable as an individual. This means that upon any re-captures, we know exactly which bird we’re handling. How do we handle and band birds of a weight similar to a penny? Carefully and with special training. Every step of the process has been designed to minimize the birds’ stress levels and put their safety as our top priority.

Diagram of Hall trap operation (researchgate.net)

First, the birds are caught in Hall traps, which drop down around hummingbird feeders when we release the traps. We carefully reach inside the trap and catch the birds by hand and place them inside a soft mesh bag to carry them from the trap to the banding table. Once they’re in the bag, that’s where they’ll stay during the banding process. The bander carefully manipulates the bird so that it is belly-up, and delicately gets one tiny foot sticking out through the mesh. This is when the band goes on.

Capulin bander reaches for the aluminum band with the application tool

Once the band is on, the bird is taken out of the bag for measurements! The measurements we take include wing cord, tail length, and fat content. Birds have very thin, delicate skin, so we measure fat content by blowing at their feathers with a tiny straw to get a visual on fat stored under the skin.

After removal from mesh bag

Measuring wing cord

          After this we take the weight, which means it’s time to prepare a tiny hummingbird burrito! To weigh the bird without it flying off, we clip it into a wrap of fine mesh. We set the scales ahead of time to account for the weight of the clip and the mesh so we know we are being accurate.

The previously mentioned bird-rrito on our tiny scale

The pollen-sampling process

The little guy stays in burrito form during the next step – pollen sampling. We dab sticky gel onto the bill of the hummingbird, which will pick up pollen. We then melt down the gel on a slide, to be looked at under a microscope later and used to identify what species of flowers the bird has visited. Finally, we always send our hummingbirds off with a drink. Before they’re released, we give them a few moments at a small feeder kept on the banding table. So why do we do this? There are many reasons to band birds, but here at Capulin we are running a climate change study. As the climate shifts, so do greening-up and flowering periods. How does this affect the hummingbirds? Are they adapting – maybe timing their spring arrival differently, or relying on different flowers? These are the kinds of questions we hope our study can answer. We band every Friday morning, and the sessions are open to the public! Feel free to stop by if you’d like to see the process in person, or even help out.

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