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

Original Air Date: Aug. 22, 2002

What has Nancy Newfield learned from decades of banding hummingbirds?

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Last time I talked about watching Nancy Newfield banding hummingbirds in the New Orleans area of Louisiana. The real value of banding comes over time, as people find banded hummingbirds in new places, or in the same place year after year. Only a tiny percentage of banded songbirds and other small species are ever found again, but the information they provide is of enormous value to researchers.

Based on banding studies, Nancy doesn’t believe that most Ruby-throated Hummingbirds cross the Gulf of Mexico in fall-although some certainly do, she thinks the majority may follow the Gulf Coast. She says that more make the over-water crossing in spring, which makes sense during the season when hormones drive the birds more urgently than in fall. Nancy’s work shows that there is far more complexity to hummingbird movements than people used to believe.

During the time I was in Louisiana, almost all the Ruby-throats coming to feeders were immature males, which precede females on migration. Their bodies are so very tiny that it doesn’ t take long for them to reach full size. One weighed barely two grams, and all weighed less than the 2.2 gram weight of one thin dime.

When I started birding, all the bird books said the only hummingbird found east of the Mississippi was the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. This is the only which nests in the East, but Nancy finds so many Rufous Hummingbirds in late summer through winter that she believes a portion of their population regularly undergoes an east-west migration.

Indeed, the first bird she trapped when we got to the backyard where she was banding was an adult Rufous Hummingbird nicknamed Orange Julius whom she banded a few years ago. Julius has returned to the same backyard territory every winter since. As in previous years, he’s taken over a section of the yard, and aggressively defends the flowers and feeder in that area, even when the feeder is inside a trap, so despite the fact that Orange Julius has been caught year after year, he clearly doesn’t hold that against the people or move on to a place where there are no traps.

Julius will probably stay in this backyard for the entire winter. But virtually every Ruby-throated Hummingbird will be gone by October. Their instinctive impulse to head for Mexico and Central America is so powerful that the most wonderful feeding station can’t entice them to stick out the winter.

By far the vast majority of hummingbirds that winter in the US are other species. In Louisiana in winter, Nancy and other handers have recorded Buff-bellied, Calliope, Anna’s, Allen’s, Rufous, Broad-billed, Black-chinned, and Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, and many stick around for days or weeks.

I got to release Orange Julius–the first time in my life I’ve ever held a Rufous Hummingbird. It was a different feeling than sending off a hawk at Hawk Ridge, or a nighthawk bursting with the urge to migrate. This little hummingbird had already reached his winter destination, and throughout the rest of the day, there he was, that tiny bird that has crossed the Rocky Mountains 8 or 10 times in his lifetime, zipping and sipping and ready to spend another winter in New Orleans, this tiny, illiterate bird doing his part to educate us humans who are so hungry to learn what he already understands.