Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A Tough Little Hummer

Most people think of hummingbirds while sharing thoughts of warm weather and abundant flowering plants. After all, hummers are truly botanical birds, thriving on nectar. The amazing eons-long process of evolution has sculpted the bills of hummingbirds into amazing appendages, aptly suited for reaching into all manner of flowers and extracting the goods.

There is also a frequent misconception that hummingbirds are rather wimpy and certainly not cold-tolerant. That's not true, at least in many cases. I think this is in part because they are so small, and to many of our minds, cute. So, something so small and cute can't possibly endure the rigors of an Ohio - or Wisconsin (think Green-breasted Mango) winter. But they can, and do. As for wimpy, well, if most hummingbirds were the size of swans, we'd all be dead. They'd impale us on those spike-like bills and cast us aside if we horned in on their action. Just watch some hummingbirds around a feeder, and how they deal with each other, and other birds.

But enough of that. The other day, Steve McKee, Director of Richland County Parks, phoned with news of a Selasphorus hummingbird that was visiting a feeding station in Mansfield. I use the genus name Selasphorus because this bird was a female or immature, so it could be either a Rufous or Allen's Hummingbird. Separating the two in the field is tough to impossible if they aren't adult males. All of the data thus far compiled on Ohio's birds points to Rufous, as every one of these Selasphorus so far verified has proven to be just that. Still, Allen's has been recorded in the east and is possible. Consequently, if we want to verify the identity of a non-adult male Selasphorus hummingbird, it requires either capturing it, or obtaining nearly impossible to get closeup photos of the tail. The latter is a real trick on a free-flying hummer.

So, we enlisted the aid of Michigan-based hummingbird researcher Allen Chartier, who graciously agreed to make the journey to Mansfield today. Allen loves to work with these sprites, and has banded many hundreds of hummingbirds. Because of his work, and other researchers like him, we've learned a lot about the peregrinations of these vagrant western species, like the Rufous Hummingbird, that show up in the east. Since the first Rufous Hummingbird was documented in Ohio in 1985, the numbers have steadily increased, and we've had several dozen records since.

Following are pictorial highlights of today's adventure.
It didn't take long to spot the hummingbird. Within 20 minutes or so of our arrival it zoomed in and began lapping up sugar-water from its favored feeder. Even in this distant in-flight shot, the strongly rufous flanks can be made out.
Now that we've got the lay of the land and a sense of the hummer's modus operandi, Allen moves in to set the trap. As you might imagine, capturing a hummingbird isn't that easy, and standard tricks like mist nests won't generally work. That's why Allen has placed that cage where the feeder was. Looks like something you'd keep a canary in. He's getting ready to place the feeder inside the cage.

As is I earlier said, it's good this hummer isn't Tundra Swan-sized or it probably would have dealt severely with Allen. While he was setting the trap, it waited impatiently nearby. Then it went through a brief, very brief, curiosity phase. I would too. After all, the normally unadorned feeder is now encaged in a large contraption built of wires. This sends up a red flag to the bird, and it flies briefly about, investigating the trap. Here, it cocks a tiny eye at the setup. Seconds later, we had it.Allen is reaching through the trap door and gently extracting the now caught hummingbird. The trap's a pretty cool device. Although intrusive in appearance, it seldom dissuades the hummingbirds for long. They are so fixated on the feeder that they'll fly right over, and buzz around the bars looking for a way in. Soon, they come to the open door and shoot right in to happily lap up sugar-water. Allen, watchfully waiting in the wings, triggers a James Bond-like remote control that causes the door to fall shut. And we've got it. And now is where experience kicks in. Becoming licensed to band these tiniest of birds is not easy, and requires gaining lots of experience and apprenticeships with other banders. Allen had this bird out of the trap and in the bag in seconds - not an easy feat!

Ann, the homeowner, was very interested in her bird and very gracious towards us. She allowed Allen to set up a temporary hummingbird lab in the study, so we could work with the bird out of the cold. For its benefit, not ours. In addition to placing a tiny band on its leg, data such as wing length, body fat, molt and coloration patterns, bill corrugations, etc. are carefully gathered and recorded. And weight. Here's the weigh-in. Our champ is nestled in that soft little sack for safekeeping. This whopper tipped the scales at a robust 3.73 grams. That's about the same as a shiny new penny.

Of course, in the back of all of our birding-fanatic minds, we were hoping that it just might turn out to be an Allen's Hummingbird. Nothing like a new state record to get the blood going. No such luck, and these tail feathers tell the story. Note that there are ten, and each are numbered from the inside out. So, the outermost tail feathers (known as a rectrix) are number fives. In Rufous, the outer tail feathers are quite broad in comparison to an Allen's, which has very narrow ones in comparison. So, because of that feature as well as other characters we knew this bird was an adult female Rufous Hummingbird, Selasphorus rufus. And we were scarcely disappointed that it wasn't the hoped for Allen's. It's always a treat to see any hummingbird, especially a rare Rufous in mid-December in snow-covered Mansfield, Ohio.

One wonders what is going on in that Lilliputian mind, as she watches us with those inscrutable little eyes. Rufous Hummingbirds handle well, and remind me a bit of working with Northern Saw-whet Owls. They are unflappable, and seemingly not too put out by all of the gymnastics we put it through during the banding. Some of the most beautiful feathers in the bird world are the central throat, or gorget, feathers of hummingbirds. When the light hits just so, they gleam irridescently.

When the time came to let Ms. Rufous go, Allen let homeowner Ann do the honors. It sat in her hand ever so briefly, then shot off like a rocket emitting high-pitched chitters. Hummingbird expletives, probably. It got over any hard feelings quickly enough, and had returned to the same feeder we caught it at within 25 minutes. This same bird or one much like it was here last year about the same time. It will be interesting to see if it returns again next year. Now that it's been marked, we'll be able to tell. Thanks to Ann for letting us invade and work with her special visitor, and to Allen Chartier for lending his time and expertise.


Tom Arbour said...


This is a sweet post, these cold weather hummers still intrigue me. I guess I never thought of hummingbirds being wussy, per se, but just thought they wouldn't hang around since in my mind they only ate nectar, and since there are no flowers in the winter, they would just go to someplace where there were plenty of flowers. I know now that these guys can eat insects as well, but, without hummingbird feeders, would we have these winter sightings in Ohio?

I also think it is pretty sweet that Allen did this in a tropical looking t-shirt sans coat or jacket or anything.


Julie Zickefoose said...

This is a great account. I've always wondered how hummingbirds are trapped and banded. Just FYI: I'm so maternal that I can't stand the thought of hosting a rufous hummingbird over the winter. So I take the feeders down at Halloween, because I know I'd worry myself sick when the weather dropped below freezing!

Canvasback, a fine botanical duck

A handsome drake Canvasback loafs in frigid Lake Erie waters, off Miller Road Park in the city of Avon Lake, Ohio. I was there bright on and...