Outdoors | The Incredible Process of Banding Hummingbirds – The Southern | Gmx Pharm

Les Winkeler for the south

MAKANDA – The skill with which Cathie Hutcheson handles tiny ruby-throated hummingbirds suggests she may have been a jeweler in a past life.

The Makanda resident is federally licensed as a hummingbird bander. She’s been in the craft for nearly 22 years, and if the math is right, she’ll tie her 100,000th hummingbird sometime this summer.

Hutcheson captures the hummingbirds with homemade traps. The traps are simple – 3/8 inch nets draped between two tiny hula hoops. A bungie cord is threaded through the top of the net. A hummingbird feeder attaches to the bottom hook, while the top hook is placed over a tree branch or clothesline. Finally, there is a slit in the net to allow the hummingbirds to access the feeding station.

Once the trap is in place, you need to sit back and wait for the birds to find their way into the web. This process usually only takes a few minutes.

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When a hummingbird enters the web, Hutcheson jumps into action. She captures the bird and puts it in a small pouch made from a man’s handkerchief before transporting it to her workplace. There Hutcheson determines a bird’s sex, measures its wings and beak, determines its age, checks if it is carrying an egg, weighs it and records the information as he works.

If the bird hasn’t already been banded, she uses pliers to attach a small aluminum band to one leg. If there is a band, write down the number. Then the bird is released.

That sounds like a complicated process – and it is. But Hutcheson is remarkably quick and makes the process look effortless.

“It’s about a minute,” she said matter-of-factly. “I only have one species to contend with. I know what measurements to take. I don’t need to distinguish between broadtail, calliope or babies, all of which look the same. I don’t have to do any of this. They (bands in other parts of the country) take longer because of this. i’m pretty fast I get pretty impatient when people come down to study because they’re just so damn slow.”

Hutcheson stocks about 100 bands that she makes herself. The bands are made for women who are slightly taller than men. She cuts off part of the band to make room for the smaller male – like taking a link out of a bracelet. Tiny pliers are used to secure the band around the tiny leg.

She started banding in 2000 because she saw a need.

“I knew there were a lot of hummingbirds around here, and I couldn’t get anyone to come down here to tie them from the south,” Hutcheson said. “So I said, ‘Okay, I’ll do it myself.’ I went to Nancy Newfield, she lived just west of New Orleans. She showed me how to frost the birds, make the ribbons, and I came back, got a permit, and started.

“I have to send all the information to the banding lab in Maryland, and they have a computer where if someone catches or finds one of these birds somewhere else, someone can give that band number to the banding lab. The ringing lab will send that person a note stating where I caught the bird and they will send me a note stating where the bird was recaptured. That’s the value of banding. You can say, ‘Oh, my birds come back every year,’ but I can prove it because I can see their numbers.”

Banders must be federally licensed and gain approval by passing a three-day test consisting of a written test, a lab test, and a field test. Potential bands must pass all three before being approved. There are only about 120 licensed bands in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

Watching Hutcheson ring a bird is like taking a graduate ornithology course.

As it measures and records information, it continuously imparts knowledge. She explains that sexing a bird is relatively easy, the sixth primary feather on the wing has a flat shape, it’s not rounded like the others. She explains that blowing through a drinking straw on a woman’s stomach exposes the skin through which an egg is visible.

She went on to say that females carry one egg each and each nest contains two eggs. Hummingbirds typically nest twice a year. And a fully developed egg will account for almost a third of a woman’s total body weight.

While measuring up to another bird, Hutcheson notes that hummingbirds shed their body feathers before migration and their wing feathers in their wintering grounds.

She explains bluntly that young hummingbirds have grooves in their beaks and yellow stripes on their plumage—both of which traits disappear with age. Hutcheson said juvenile hummingbirds have yellow mouths because it’s easier for adults to find them in the nest when begging for food.

After 20 years and nearly 100,000 birds, the process has almost become second nature to Hutcheson, who makes ribbons 3-4 days a week.

“Yes, I’m up to about 95,000 before this year,” she said. “I order 5,000 banderoles every year and I still have a few left over from last year. I hope to reach my 100,000th this year. I think I’ll be one of the few people, maybe the only one, to have ringed 100,000 hummingbirds alone. There are several groups of people who have ringed more birds, but it’s like 10 people in a group working at a glance.”

Southern Illinois’ hummingbird population has remained relatively stable over the past 20 years — at least in areas where Hutcheson bands perform.

“It depends on the weather,” she says. “It’s pretty stable around here. One year we had, in the summer, we had May, June and July, the nights went into the 40s. I caught 2,700 birds this year, hardly any chicks because when it gets that cold the females have to freeze at night to survive. They cannot hatch their eggs. Therefore, very few nests survived that year, and the birds all left in September. They just picked up and left. They usually stay until mid-October.”

Over the years, Hutcheson has accumulated an amazing amount of knowledge about the hummingbirds and made a few observations. She has noticed that the males are a bit larger now than when they started. When she began her banding career, it was rare to find a male with a beak longer than 16mm. Well, it’s rare to find a male with a beak less than 16mm.

“Birding is important because we’re seeing general population trends,” she said. “We now know from bird tapes and all the bird surveys that have been done over the last 50 years that we have lost half our bird population in the last 30 years.

“That means there are half as many robins, half as many cardinals because we are polluting, changing the climate, changing the environment. You don’t know that unless you do bird tapes and surveys like humans do. Birds are very sensitive.”

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