Crown Point birder knows how to band the lightweights
By Mike Lynch
Every May, you can find Ted Hicks at the Crown Point Bird Banding Station on Lake Champlain, where he serves as the coordinator.
Along with fellow volunteers, including Gary Lee and Gordon Howard, he bands the birds that come through the area on their annual spring migration.
Among the winged creatures that Hicks bands are ruby-throated hummingbirds which winter in the southern climates and arrive in the Northeast with the warming temperatures.
These birds weigh just a few grams but move at lightning speed, their wings beating more than 50 beats per second when they hover above flowers, sipping nectar.
Hicks says he bands the small birds several times a year — in early May to assess their migration and breeding numbers, later in May to look for local breeding ones, and in mid-July to early August to assess the success of breedings.
In the Adirondacks, the Charlton resident bands at places such as Schroon Falls and Stillwater Reservoir.
Memorial Day weekend, he banded 65 new ruby-throated hummingbirds at Stillwater in addition to recapturing several banded birds. One was a female that he banded the year it hatched in 2014.
In the following question-and-answer session, Hicks says why he got into the activity and addresses questions about the process.
What made you want to band hummingbirds and how long have you been doing it?
Hicks: I have always been interested in birds ever since I was a kid. Later in life I worked professionally with a man who was an avocational bird bander. We initially connected due to mutual fishing interests but that extended to bird banding. I assisted with his work for several years and he encouraged me to become a bander too. He trained me on all aspects of bird banding for hummingbirds, passerines, near-passerines and raptors, all of which I continue to band today.
The real interest for me is contributing to the study of birds to expand our knowledge and understanding of avian ecology. I also enjoy expanding and improving the banding process from developing ways for more efficient record keeping, improving trapping techniques and ensuring the safe handling of captive wild birds.
What types of hummingbirds do you band?
Hicks: Of the 27 species that occur in the US, the ruby-throated hummingbird is the only breeding species that occurs east of the Mississippi River. A few of the remaining species are only rarely seen, and fewer still are regular breeders. I think there is a total of 15 species that are known to breed in the U.S. So my focus is on ruby-throated hummingbirds.
Each year there are often vagrant western species that make their way east. It is unknown why this happens, but it is happening more and more over the past decade or so. The only other species I have encountered is the rufous hummingbird which is one of the most common western species. I banded it at a feeder in northern New Jersey in December a few years ago.
What is the purpose of banding hummingbirds? What information do you gather from them and where is it sent?
Hicks: To collect data to study the status and trends of hummingbird migration patterns, biometrics, and environmental health. Data is sent to the Bird Banding Laboratory (BBL) and is available to the public. It is often mined by researchers for various types of analyses, monitoring, identifying, and alerting about any endangered hummingbird species or ecosystem collapse. Bird banding data is used in climate change research and even has been used to identify the impacts of a pandemic. Look up M.A.P.S. banding. This an acronym that stands for Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship; it is a highly standardized protocol for banding birds to gather specific types of data.
There are, relatively speaking, only a few hummingbird banders in the US, about 300 or so across the country. All hummingbird species that breed in North America migrate to the southern US on down to Mexico, Central America, and further on down to South America. Hummingbird banding is much less done in these locations, so we don’t really know too much about what happens with hummingbirds when they are down there. One thing we do know that is happening is habitat loss due to timber harvesting and farming. So while they have relatively secure habitats in North America to conduct their breeding activities, their wintering grounds are becoming less and less available. However, in general hummingbirds are doing well and not experiencing population declines quite like some other passerine species seem to be.
How do you capture them and how is that process different from how you capture other birds? Are hummingbirds regulated differently from other birds?
Hicks: Most methods for targeting hummingbirds involve some sort of enclosure that you can hang a regular sugar water feeder inside. They employ a trap door that is manually operated from a distance with a hand line. I use two types. One is called a Hall Trap. It is highly portable and is designed to be operated from a distance with a hand line. A sugar-water feeder is hung inside the trap to lure the hummingbird into the trap. When it perches on the feeder, the hand line is released and the trap closes, catching the hummingbird inside a mesh enclosure. I also use another style of trap called a Sargent Trap. The one I built is made from half-inch welded wire and is about 18 inches square. One side has a hinged door that can be opened and closed from a distance with a hand line. Same idea as with the Hall Trap: you hang a sugar-water feeder inside, raise the door with the hand line, wait for a hummingbird to land on the feeder, and then release the hand line to close the door. Many of the hummingbirds we catch at Crown Point are caught in the mist nets too, the same as all the other birds.
Hummingbirds are not regulated differently than other birds. All wild migratory birds, with a few exceptions, fall under the protection of the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act and its associated regulations. Once enacted in 1918, all aspects of human interaction with migratory birds became prohibited. So in order to handle wild birds, one needs a federal permit from the BBL. Many states require an additional permit and New York is one of them so I am licensed here, and New Jersey too.
Do the bands pose any threats to the birds?
Hicks: Properly fitted bands really pose no threat to hummingbirds or any other bird for that matter. This is a common question. The bands are made from aluminum so they are hypoallergenic to birds, and the weight of the band is not burdensome in any way. For all species that are banded, banders are equipped with bands that are sized appropriately for that species. Further, banders are responsible for recognizing that birds, like people, come in all shapes and sizes even within the same species. So we use a recommended band size for each species, but ensure that it is fitted properly. If it is not, we will replace it with another band size that is a better fit for that individual bird.
One of the aspects of bird banding is recapturing previously banded birds. I return to the same sites each year in spring eagerly hoping to recapture birds from previously banded birds. One of the behavioral aspects of birds that bird banding has determined, which would have been very difficult if not impossible to determine by simple observation, is nest site fidelity. We know from catching previously banded birds at the same site in the spring/summer seasons that these are the same birds from at least one previous year that have returned to the exact same geographical location to breed again. The fact that they return with the band in place, still properly fitted, is further evidence that placing bands on birds poses no threat to the bird.
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