By Tom Uhlenbrock
Missouri State Parks
LEASBURG, Mo. – After measuring, weighing and banding the tiny fluff of green feathers, Lanny Chambers had a special treat.
“Hold out your hand,” he said.
Chambers gently placed the female ruby-throated hummingbird upside down on the palm of my hand.
The bird blinked, and I could see it breathing. The buzz I felt was the beat of its heart, 20 times a second. But it didn’t budge, laying trance-like, feet up, watching me with its black eyes.
“Some birds leave as soon as you put them down,” Chambers said. “Others just lie there. They may be disoriented because it’s an unnatural position for them. There’s some element of playing opossum.
“We’re a gigantic, ugly predator to them. The hummingbird’s hoping you’ll lose interest in it if it’s still. But they’re watching, and they’ll make a break for it.”
Chambers, 64 and from the St. Louis suburb of Fenton, is a graphic designer by trade, and a hummingbird bander by choice. He estimates there are maybe 100 active banders in North America.
Chambers was assisted by his wife, Linda, as he demonstrated his skills on a spring Saturday at Onondaga Cave State Park. He has future banding sessions on July 2, Aug. 6 and Sept. 3 at Onondaga, and on Sept. 4 at Montauk State Park. The sessions are free, and the public is invited to come and watch.
Chambers has been banding hummingbirds in Missouri state parks since 2000, and estimates he has captured and banded some 2,300 birds. Of those, he has recaptured 105, including a couple that he caught for the second time five years later.
The requirements to be a certified bander are strict. A person must apprentice under a master bander, and then have three master banders recommend certification to the U.S. Geological Survey Bird Banding Laboratory. If approved, the laboratory issues permits and bands. The aluminum bands with identifying numbers are so tiny Chambers keeps his secured on a safety pin.
The upside-down female on my hand was stock still for nearly a minute. Finally, Chambers told me to roll it over with a finger. I did, and pfftt, the bird was gone in a whirr, like a magic act. I smiled in disbelief.
“All kids have the same grin, even if they’re 90 years old,” Chambers said. “You think we do this just for science?”
Chambers had plenty of birds to work with – the feeder at the visitor center at Onondaga Cave State Park was swirling with ruby-throated hummingbirds. Within minutes, Chambers and his wife had fastened a mesh chamber around the top of the feeder. When Linda Chambers released a cord to drop the mesh cage, the first couple of hummingbirds were caught.
“The hardest thing to do is to get a bird out of the trap without hurting it,” Chambers said. “You learn the birds’ anatomy, which way things bend.”
He deftly secured a female hummingbird, and immediately placed it into a stocking toe to restrain it. The bird objected with shrill squeaks. The female weighed 3.2 grams – the exact same as a penny – and its bill was 17 millimeters. Chambers also measured its wing, while his wife took notes. Females, by the way, are larger than males.
The next bird Chambers banded was a male, and he showed off its namesake throat. Holding the bird in his hand toward the sun, Chambers circled a group of onlookers. The patch of color on its throat turned from brilliant orange to yellow to iridescent green to brown to almost black.
Eggs like Tic Tacs
As Chambers worked, he answered the questions of the spectators that had gathered.
Ruby-throated hummingbirds are the only species that breeds in Missouri, he said, and make up the vast majority of those that show up at backyard feeders. They spend the winter in Central America, returning in early spring to nest in the United States and Canada.
Their nests are made of flower parts, like the fluff of dandelions, bound together with spider webs. They add bits of lichen to the outside for camouflage.
“The nest is about the size of a walnut,” Linda Chambers said. “They lay two eggs that look like white Tic Tacs.”
The two most voracious predators of hummingbirds are exotic species introduced by humans – housecats, domestic and feral, and Chinese praying mantis, introduced into America by the pet trade and as a pest control in the garden.
“They are fully capable of catching hummingbirds,” Chambers said of the 6-inch, greenish-brown mantis. “They are incredibly quick. They’ll hang underneath a feeder and grab a hummingbird by the throat.”
Mix your own feed
Why band hummingbirds, Chambers was asked?
“To study species, you have to study individuals,” he replied. “To do that, you have to identify individuals, and banding is the only way to do it.
“You can’t tell how long a bird lives until you band it, and catch it year after year until you don’t capture it anymore. Patterns emerge, and you start learning things.”
First instance, banders have found that the same species of hummingbird will differ in size according to where it was caught. They don’t know why, but they have detected the difference. “It’s an average of a millimeter or less, but on a little bird, that’s significant,” he said.
Chambers had a suggestion for homeowners with backyard hummingbird feeders: Make a mixture of four parts water and one part cane sugar, and avoid using commercial feeder with red dye.
“First, it’s not necessary, flower nectar is not red, it’s clear, and there’s enough red on feeders to attract birds,” he said. “Second, it’s been proven birds prefer common sugar water over dyed sugar water. Apparently, they don’t like the taste of red dye.”
Chambers also prefers the saucer type feeders to bottles because they are easier to keep clean.
A real buzz
His numbers after a decade of bird banding coincide with others banders, and it’s fairly good news for the ruby throat.
“Overall, the population of ruby throats is considered steady, or slightly growing, throughout their range, which is the Gulf Coast to the boreal forest in Canada,” he said.
While ruby throats are the most common hummingbird found in Missouri, a few other Western species will migrate through the state in fall to winter on the Gulf Coast, especially the rufous hummingbird.
“A rufous banded in Florida was recaptured in Alaska,” Chambers said. “It was the first time a banded hummingbird had been caught that far. A ruby-throated hummingbird can average 53 wing beat per second. That’s a lot of flaps.”
Hummingbird banding, Chambers said, is an interesting hobby and a chance to contribute to scientific knowledge.
“On another level, I like to make kids smile, that’s fairly addictive,” he said. “It’s a buzz, literally, putting a hummingbird in my own hand.”
For more information, Chambers has a website at www.hummingbirds.net.