November 10th, 2008

Handling Rainbows
By Neil M. Travis, Montana/Arizona

If you think this is an article about trout [rainbows], or anything remotely connected to fishing in any form please stop reading now and select another article. The Ladyfisher convinced me that the readers of FAOL were interested in subjects other than fly-fishing, and she encouraged me to write about banding hummingbirds. So, if you have gotten this far and you haven't hit the delete button I will tell you about handling rainbows.

First, a bit of background might be helpful. To handle migratory birds you must have a federal permit, and I obtained my permit in 1964. In the intervening years I have been privileged to work with migratory birds from the Mid-west to the Rocky Mountain West, and most recently in Arizona, where, in addition to my own banding projects, I have been assisting a fellow bander working with hummingbirds.

Like trout fishing, first you have to decide how to catch them. There are several ways to accomplish this; however the method that we use is accomplished by catching them when they come to the feeders. The trap consists of three hoops; one on the top has large mesh to allow the bees to escape, the next hoop is suspended from the top hoop and has fine organdy material attached to the top and middle hoop. The bottom hoop is covered with fine mesh screen, and is anchored to the ground by guy lines. The middle hoop is weighted, and when a hummer lands on the feeder that is suspended in the center of the trap the trapper releases the control cable and the middle hoop drops down trapping the hummer inside.

Once the hummer is inside the trap the trapper removes it and puts it in a cloth sack. Then the hummer is taken to the banding station where the banding team processes each bird.

The banding process is fairly detailed and involves several steps. First the bird must be identified. In southeastern Arizona where I work with hummers it is possible to capture 18 species so identification is a bit trickier than when you are only handling a couple different species.

Once the bird is identified the bander must select the proper sized band. Hummingbird bands come to the bander in sheets that look like stiff paper with numbers printed on them. They are made of a light weight aluminum alloy, and the bander has to manually cut out each band from the sheet, smooth the edges, and form it into a band. Each band is custom made to accommodate the various different sized hummingbirds.

The various banding tools are similar to fly-tying tools. We use a micrometer to measure the length of the bill, wing and tail feathers, plastic boxes to store the various bands, and tweezers to handle the bands.

As the bander works with the bird, the information about the bird is recorded by another assistant. The bander identifies the bird as to species and sex and places a band on the leg shank. This information is recorded along with various measurements that the bander makes on each individual bird.

Here is a immature male broad-billed hummingbird setting on a banding information sheet. You can see that we often record a great deal of information on each bird we band.

Once the birds are banded and all of the information is recorded they are given a drink of sugar water and then they are released. All of the information that we gathered is transmitted by computer link to the national banding repository in Patuxent, Maryland.

I work with the Hummingbird Monitoring Network, a network of banders that have set up a series of protocols for banding hummingbirds in a coordinated fashion. Here in southeastern Arizona we start banding the second week of March, and we band birds every two weeks until the end of October. We operate two traps at each station, we open the traps at sunrise and band for five hours every two weeks. We have cooperating banders working in New Mexico, Arizona, California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska.

Why do we spend endless hours capturing tiny birds, birds that most people either do not know exists or do not care? We hope to further our knowledge, but underneath it all there is something else, something more ephemeral, and something almost spiritual.

When I hold a tiny hummingbird in my hand I am staring into the eyes of a living creature that is capable of doing things that man, with all his intellect and God-given genius, is incapable of doing. Packed within this tiny dynamo of living flesh is the ability to fly backward, forward, to hover, and even fly upside down. In the course of its lifetime it will cover distances that boggle my mind. It will migrate to places it has never been and return again to the place where I am holding it in my hand without compass, map, or GPS unit. When I hold this living jewel I am humbled, awed, and perplexed. Somehow this little bird knows so much more than I ever will, will experience things that I cannot even imagine, and will pass from the scene without fanfare or notice. It reminds me of the limits of human knowledge, and perhaps that is why I rise up before the sun to chase rainbows.
~ The Chronicler

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