Hummer in the Hand

Banding hummingbirds is considered a sub-specialty among bird banders. It requires a special permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Bird Banding Laboratory, and is issued only to qualified individuals with a specific research plan and the endorsement of three bird banders or ornithologists who can vouch for the applicant’s abilities and intentions. Tim Tolford is one such bander, and a member of the Cincinnati Bird Club. He runs the Hummer/Bird Banding Research Collaborative and gave a talk on banding last fall at a meeting, which really peaked my interest. “You mean I could actually hold a bird? Cool.” I thought.  Tim also runs the Saw-Whet Owl project, the goal of which is to monitor, improve and increase the  knowledge of Saw-Whet owl migration North America. This project is conducted through observation and owl banding.

This summer, I also attended a talk while camping in West Virginia by hummingbird bander Bill Hilton Jr. who runs, and travels to Central America several times a year to band hummingbirds. He has yet to recapture a hummer (banded in Central America) on his property in South Carolina where he bands throughout the year, but he is very hopeful.

The little guy below was captured in one of the nets we placed and tangled up pretty good. After his rescue, he was a little stunned and stayed put for a couple of minutes – long enough for me to observe this close and stroke his tiny back. What a blessing for the day.

Hummer in the handHummer in the hand

A Bird in the Cone

As part of a continuing series this week, I am discussing different aspects of bird banding, the goal of which is to collect various data points and record them in a national database all in the name of bird conservation. After capturing and untangling birds in mist nets, they are measured for wing length, overall body length, weight  and body fat. By blowing on their belly feathers, their skin is revealed and one estimates the amount of body fat accumulated for migration using a 1,2 or 3 with three being full fat. The bird bander I worked with last weekend (Sharon) told me that several weeks back, they caught a bird that was at a ‘1.’ The very next week it was recaptured (an amazing thing in and of itself), and it had gone to a 3 and accumulated about 8 oz. of additional weight.

To weigh the bird, Sharon used a homemade scale contraption which consisted of a food scale, a yogurt cup with a hole in the bottom, and a paper cone in which the bird is inserted and which rests in the bottom of the upside down cup on the scale. A little difficult to picture. See photo below. Surprisingly, most birds did not fight the process of being put headfirst into the cone, with one exception; a cardinal. It fought back by spreading out its wings, but Sharon swiftly regained her grasp and got him in the cup. All the other birds went into almost a dormant state without flinching a feather.

A Bird in the Cone
A Bird in the Cone

A Bird in the Bag

Before my first bird banding experience, I thought after you caught a bird in the net, that information was recorded on the spot. After setting up 12 mist nets and the bird banding data station, I knew there was going to be another way. Bird bags. After each expert extraction of a bird from the net by Sharon Pawlowski, they are gently placed in a bird bag, which is actually a zippered laundry bag used for delicate items. As we wound through the 3/4 mile trail of nets, I was a lucky bag carrier. Once a bird is placed in a bag, it basically goes into a reticent, dormant mode and calmly lays in the bag. Something I did not expect. Some, however; were none too happy about their new habitat and fought the enclosure. I found that cupping them in my hand, and stroking their back really helped them calm down. This was an amazing and highly rewarding experience.

Upon returning to the banding station, we hung our catch like laundry as we worked our way through the ‘load.’

The net, net?  A bird in the bag is worth 10 in the bush when bird banding.

Common Yellowthroat in BagCommon Yellowthroat in Bag

Wilson's warbler in bagWilson’s warbler in bag

Birds in bagsBirds in bags

A Bird in the Hand

All schedules and stars in the sky fell in alignment last Saturday, and for the first time, I attended a bird banding session. Arriving at Gilmore Pond at 6:30am, I met up with experienced bird bander Sharon Pawlowski. With the help of Sam Fitton (both are members of the Cincinnati Bird Club,) we set up 12 mist nets hoping for a great round of fall migration catches, and the effort did not disappoint. A total of 11 different species, and 26 individuals were recorded. Below is one of my favorite catches of the day – the ovenbird. I love him for his name and how adorable he is. We discussed the origins of the name, and concluded it is a misnomer as he would definitely not satisfy anyone’s hunger. I quipped that his name would be much more fitting for a turkey. Part of the warbler family (although he looks like he could be a miniature thrush) he is often spotted foraging for food on the leafy floor of the woods. Listen to his call. If you listen very closely, you can hear a wood thrush in the background.


Sharon banded him on the right leg, but there is no protocol set by the Ohio Bird Banding Association that specifies left or right. The length of his wings, total body, weight and amount of fat are recorded. The information is loaded into a national database, and used to track migration patterns, population shifts, longevity, habitat, nesting behaviors and more, all in the name of bird conservation.