For the Birds Radio Program: Hummingbird Banding with Nancy Newfield I

Original Air Date: Aug. 21, 2002

Laura spent a day watching and photographing Nancy Newfield banding hummingbirds near New Orleans.

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Right now, hummingbirds are topping off their tanks at our bird feeders at the height of migration. I’ve always wanted to see what hummingbird migration is like in the South, where our north country hummers gather with hummers from all over the eastern states and provinces before heading down to Mexico, so this year I decided to spend a few mid­ August days in New Orleans with the woman who has been banding hummingbirds longer than any other person in North America, Nancy Newfield.

I’ve observed a lot of birds being banded over the years, but never hummingbirds . There are only a handful ofbanders permitted to touch hummingbirds because of the unique demands of placing a band on a leg that’s thinner than a straight pin jutting out of a living, breathing bird whose whole body weighs less than a dime. Some hummingbird handers use nets to trap their birds, but Nancy doesn’t think tangling such tiny birds in nets is worth the risk. So she invented some slick traps-wire cages that each hold a hummingbird feeder near the top, with a large door near the bottom. The birds quickly learn to fly into the open doors of the traps to feed. They fly in and out at will until Nancy sees a bird she wants to band. She waits until it is perched on a feeder and then clicks remote control which triggers the door to slam shut. Birds tend to fly up when frightened, so the low placement of the door relative to the feeder ensures that the bird won’ t get injured by the closing door.

The trapped hummingbird tries to escape, but Nancy immediately retrieves it. I was pleased to see how gently and quickly she works to grasp the tiny birds in her hand without injuring them.

I’ve held a lot of hummingbirds as a rehabber, and was often struck by how quickly even wild adults adapt to novel situations. Although a few of Nancy’s captives cried for a minute or two, they all quickly calmed down. The first thing she does is to place a minute band on the bird’s leg. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service doesn’t manufacture these bands the way they do those for larger species-instead, they provide the handers with thin aluminum cards on which are engraved two hundred tiny numbered rectangles-the handers themselves cut out the bands using a dressmaker’s shears, a fine file, and a surgeon’s magnifier. It’s painstaking work making these bands perfect, and Nancy obviously must prepare the tiny bands before she goes out to trap hummingbirds. Once cut, the bands are placed on a diaper pin in numerical order, ready for use.

After Nancy puts the band on the bird, she measures its bill, wing, and tail, examines the body fat and bill, and weighs the bird. I got to watch her band 8 or 10 birds while she was telling me about what she’s learned in a lifetime of banding over 6000 hummers. A lot of it is actually quite different from what has been published in popular hummingbird books. Next time I’ll talk about some of Nancy’s surprising discoveries.