Hummingbird banding measures nesting success

You won’t believe this. I almost don’t, and I was there.

I spent an evening in Springfield, Ill., at a hummingbird banding potluck. I took fried chicken. Now that seems wrong.

Someone asked why hummingbirds are banded; I wanted to know how they were caught. After all, you can’t just stick out your hand and grab something that can beat its wings up to 100 times a second. A second. I can’t even think “100 times a second” in a second.

Vernon Kleen, the man doing the banding, holds a permit to do so. After a childhood of bird enthusiasm, he earned the permit in 1960 at age 18. His avocation turned to vocation, he says, and he worked as an avian ecologist for the state of Illinois. An ornithologist. Kleen said banding tells how successful the nesting season was. Hummingbirds are not endangered, and some may live as long as 10 years. That’s if they make it past the first year. Cats and praying mantises are natural enemies, as are windows, cars and guy wires.

With 16 others watching him work, it might have been a bit noisy for the hummingbirds. The first little bird was too skittish and got away before the door dropped behind him. I say door. It was a wire cage hung around the only hummingbird feeder left hanging in the area. The little door was held up with a hook that was pulled free when Kleen hit an electronic device.

The second bird settled in for a long drink, so the door closed her in. Then he simply reached in and grabbed her. It looked easy enough, but he said it doesn’t always go so smoothly. He held her in his left hand, with her tiny head between his forefinger and middle finger, then proceeded to measure her, even using a magnifying glass to see if she had grooves in her beak. She didn’t, which means she was a she.

He showed us how she had no feathers on her belly, although other feathers covered the bare skin so you couldn’t tell. She has that bald spot, Kleen said, because that allows her to sit closely on top of the eggs she lays. Usually two, the size of peanuts. She uses spider webs and plant fibers in her nest, about the size of a half dollar. It resembles a knot on a limb. The spider web allows the nest to enlarge as her babies grow.

Kleen blew her feathers apart and gently put her down on my finger so I could feel her heartbeat, but at 1,200 beats, give or take, a minute, it felt like a continual vibration.

Both my sister, Barbara, and her mother-in-law got to hold hummingbirds in their hands, opening their fingers and allowing them to fly away. Barbara’s bird just lay there, so I got up close to inspect the emerald feathers. Her fingers twitched, and the bird took off, coming dangerously close to flying right up my nose.

And she wasn’t looking for nectar.

I’ll tell you more about hummingbirds next week.

So long friends, until the next time when we’re together.

Sandy Mickelson, retired lifestyle editor of The Messenger, may be reached at