‘Pugnacious little beasts’: Hummingbirds are misunderstood, say Alabama experts
by Brett Buckner
Feb 26, 2012 | 5106 views |  0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Hummingbirds are often a misunderstood bird. Photo: Trent Penny/The Anniston Star
Hummingbirds are often a misunderstood bird. Photo: Trent Penny/The Anniston Star
Back in the early 1980s, avid gardeners Bob and Martha Sargent noticed an increasing number of hummingbirds visiting their backyard in Clay.

The more of the delicately beautiful birds they saw, the more enthralled they became.

And — as is the case with most gardeners — where some was good, more was better. The husband-and-wife duo began to research hummingbirds. But the more they studied, the less they learned.

So the Sargents essentially struck out on their own. Some 25 years later, they are nationally recognized for their work with hummingbirds.

They are founders and directors of The Hummer/Bird Study Group, a 2,000-plus-member nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of hummingbirds and other neo-tropical migrant birds.

The Sargents have captured and banded tens of thousands of hummingbirds. Their efforts have led to the identification and documentation of more than 13 species within the hummingbird family.

When they aren’t banding from their own backyard, they travel the nation lecturing about hummingbirds. The Sargents will give a lecture Saturday at the Anniston-Calhoun County Public Library. They’ll discuss everything from the hummingbird’s controversial migration pattern to its sex life.

Bob Sargent spoke this week about the jeweled birds.

• • •

While some are happy just to observe hummingbirds, you and Martha went much further, why?

We wanted to give the individual birds an identity by putting a tiny numbered aluminum band around their legs. This way, they would become a known quantity, and we could map their movements over years.

Tell me exactly what banding is.

Let’s start with the band itself. When we receive the bands, it’s on a sheet that’s about half the size of a 3-by-5 index card. We have to cut those into strips of 10, and then form them into what looks like the letter C so they can fit around the hummingbirds’ legs.

They’re very light. It takes about 5,500 of these bands to weigh one ounce.

Bear in mind that the birds we’re putting them on are so small that a male — in this case the Ruby-throated Hummingbird — weighs about 3.1 grams, and the female about 3.4. So you could mail seven or eight of these birds with a 45-cent stamp.

When we started doing this, there were no trainers. So it was a long, tedious process, learning how it all worked in a way that was safe for the bird.

Just being pragmatic — how do you get the band on the bird?

Imagine a tiny ring, the size of the end of drinking straw. Because it started out as a strip, we can open it up, and we have special set of pliers made just for closing that section around the leg of a hummingbird.

I don’t look like somebody who possesses much finesse — more like a Sumo wrestler. For anyone with hand-eye coordination and a bit of finesse — not to mention a bunch of training that keeps them from making the same mistakes we made — it can be done.

Keep in mind that these are migratory birds. They’re protected by federal law, so it requires state and federal permits to trap these birds — and, even then, there are stiff laws regarding how long you can keep the birds and what you can do once you’ve captured them.

This isn’t something somebody needs to get into if they’re looking for a pet — that’ll get you put into the federal penitentiary.

Over the years, we’ve perfected a number of safe capture methods. We rarely catch them in mist nets. We have a trap that’s fashioned out of a hummingbird feeder. Of course, we’ have 50-plus feeders in our yard. And they come to the feeder, like they’re accustomed to doing, they’ll come in through an open door in the trap and we close the door behind them, operating it with a piece of fishing line.

What does it take to be a trained bander?

Not everybody you choose to train will have that necessary finesse, that soft touch. For some people it comes naturally — they either have it or they don’t — and most people with a lot of time and patience can be taught this manual dexterity, this softness of touch.

But occasionally we’ll get those who just don’t have it, so we’ll have to abandon the training, because obviously the safety of the bird comes first.

What was the goal of this banding?

We wanted to see if these birds were returning to the same spot year after year. As it turns out, they do that with great fidelity of both the site and timing of their return.

These hummingbirds become almost like a member of your family — somebody you know. You may only see them on one day over a calendar year, but you’ll see them on the same day — plus or minus a day — every year.

That’s what really opened the door for us, which wouldn’t have been known if it weren’t for this individual banding.

These birds return to our yard, year after year on virtually the same date, for upward of eight years in a row.

You normally band upward of 800 hummingbirds in your yard per year. I can only imagine what kind of garden you must have.

Oh, it’s a beautiful garden with lots of amazing plants. But it’s really Martha’s yard. I’m just a digger of holes. She’s got the imagination it takes to make the garden … those plants that, by trial and error, we know the hummingbirds like, with parts of it blooming at different times throughout the year.

The season starts for us around the first few weeks of March, when they come up from the tropics — and these are all the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds we’re talking about here. We have plants blooming well into winter, when frost kills (the plants) off.

Tell me about hummingbirds’ migrating patterns.

Hummingbirds are pure migrants. They’re always on the move. We’ll catch about 175 that we banded here in previous years.

Why is it important to have people study and map out the migration patterns of these tiny birds?

When we started from scratch and basically trained ourselves, the state of Alabama had one known species of hummingbird — the Ruby-throated.

Surely people saw other birds, but that was often in winter, and the conventional wisdom of the time was that once frost killed the plants, any hummingbird left in Alabama would die, because there were no flowers to find nectar.

The real truth is, as of this year, we have banded and documented 13 species of hummingbird in Alabama in the winter. Those are all new discoveries, which make us sound more important than we are.

But it’s one of these messages that we try to get across during programs like the one we’ll be doing in Anniston. We’ll be trying to convince people to leave their feeders up even in winter.

Conventional wisdom was that if you left feeders up in winter, the birds would stay and ultimately freeze to death. Totally false.

Ruby-throats are genetically mapped to migrate, and when God rings the bell, they’re out of here. If the Ruby-throat was to stay up in the Birmingham/Anniston area in the winter, they would freeze to death.

But for these other species of hummingbird, it’s not true, because they are very cold-hardy.

We’ve learned that the primary food for these birds during the winter, and maybe all the time, are tiny soft-bodied insects — aphids, mosquitoes, spiders, fruit flies and that sort of thing.

Hummingbirds are voracious predators. It’s hard to imagine a bird weighing an eighth of an ounce being a predator, but it is. Hummingbirds are fierce. If it can fly down and eat it or pick it off a leaf, it’s fair game.

You mentioned how misunderstood and poorly studied hummingbirds are. Is there a certain misconception about what most people consider to be such a beautifully delicate creature?

They are pugnacious little beasts … and ‘pugnacious’ is the right word, because they are quarrelsome and very territorial. We see them in the springtime when they’re super-aggressive.

In the fall, they bury the hatchet a little bit, but they’re still hateful. They’re plain hateful, ornery little birds. They don’t like anybody.

Once the babies leave the nest, they’re on their own and become part of the competition. And hummingbirds fight all the time.

Hummingbird lecture

“Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Hummingbirds (But Didn’t Know Who to Ask),” featuring Bob and Martha Sargent

When: 3-5 p.m. Saturday

Where: Anniston-Calhoun County Public Library

Admission: Free

More info: For more information about Bob and Martha Sargent and the Hummer/Bird Study Group, visit www.hummingbirdsplus.org.
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