CASSCOE — Gently, oh, so gently, Tana Beasley held the ruby-throated hummingbird.
The bird was wrapped in a disposable footlet sock, the kind used when trying on shoes. Beasley held the bird in her left hand. With her right hand, she took the tiniest band of metal, placed it on the bird's tiny leg, and with a pair of pliers barely pressed the band together.
Once banded, the bird was measured for length, as was its beak. To show that hummingbirds don't have feathers on their chest, Beasley took a plastic straw and lightly blew on the upturned bird.
No feathers, she explained, quickens the incubation of eggs. Because hummingbirds "do everything in fast forward."
How fast? If humans had the metabolism of hummingbirds, she said, they would have to eat 150 pounds of protein of day.
The bird was weighed — 2.72 grams.
"He's part of the family now," Beasley said.
Said the bird: "Cheep."
Beasley stepped outside, followed by a handful of visitors to the Potlatch Cook's Lake Nature Center. She opened her hands. Off flew the hummingbird, to join many others here in the forest at the end of a gravel road about 20 miles east of Stuttgart.
This neck of the Arkansas woods holds a large population of ruby-throated hummingbirds, Wil Hafner said. He's the center's manager. It's because of the habitat found in the Dale Bumpers White River National Wildlife Refuge.
Banding began here with Don McSwain, Hafner said. McSwain taught at the center until he died in 2010. Beasley had worked with McSwain and took over the banding. Beasley worked at the center for 20 years. After retiring from the Game and Fish Commission in June 2021, she came back as a volunteer.
Much has been learned about hummingbirds through the banding program, she said.
It was once accepted that hummingbirds lived three to four years. But banded birds have come back here for up to eight years. The oldest hummingbird, recorded in Maryland, was 12 years old, Beasley said.
And they certainly do come back to where they've been fed before, Beasley said.
"If someone is late in putting out feeders, they will circle around, look, come to the window. It's like they're saying, 'Get your feeder. I'm here.' How would they know there should be a feeder if they hadn't been there before? And if a feeder is empty, they'll let you know they're hungry."
Beasley told about a DeWitt woman who wanted the hummingbirds to feed on her flowers, so she took down her feeder — but not the hook.
"They circled the hook," she said, "because that's where the feeder was before."
Hummingbirds, she said, "are supposed to have better memory than elephants."
Beasley said she will band up to 500 hummingbirds a year. About 30% to 40% of them come back, she said.
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Eight people were at the center on a warm day in June to learn about hummingbirds. That's 10 short of maximum, Hafner said.
They learned all this:
◼️ Hummingbirds winter in Central Mexico.
◼️ The recipe for feeder nectar is one part sugar and four parts water. Avoid red dye. There's some evidence that red dye harms a hummingbird's kidneys.
◼️ The male is the smaller bird, and weighs about a penny, or 2.5 grams. A female weighs about a nickel, or five grams.
◼️ Hummingbirds are found only in the New World, in North, South and Central America.
◼️ Their favorite color is red.
◼️ Hummingbirds get their protein from eating insects and tiny spiders. Their favorite insect is the fruit fly.
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◼️ Plants favored by hummingbirds include Carolina jasmine and red buckeye, both of which provide nectar. Lantana houses tiny insects and spiders. Pieces of bee balm are used by hummingbirds to line their nests.
Speaking of which, females lay two pairs of eggs during mating season. The second egg comes two or three days after the first. Eggs take 21 days to hatch. Fledglings "stay with Mama for two weeks," Beasley said. "Then, it's you're an adult now — leave." The process is repeated with the second pair.
◼️ Hummingbirds sometimes fly into homes and garages. They will fly to the highest point. Don't net them. Put a feeder or water outside instead. A hummingbird can sometimes be caught by hand when it tires. "When you catch them, make sure you don't put any pressure on the chest, because of the heart," Beasley said.
◼️ Predators, she said, "are anything bigger than a hummingbird" and include robber flies, frogs, cats, dragonflies, hawks and the praying mantis.
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As tiny as the hummingbird is, its band is tinier. It's 3.5 millimeters long and is dwarfed by the tip of a finger.
The bands are a metal alloy and come in sheets from the Eastern Ecological Science Center at the Patuxent Research Refuge in Laurel, Md., whose website says it has been gathering data from banded birds since 1920.
Each hummingbird band is numbered. Needless to say, those numbers are very, very small.
The process of banding begins outside at a metal cage, on top of which are three hummingbird feeders. When time comes to trap some birds, the feeders are taken away. One is put inside the cage. The birds fly in, fly up, and can't get out.
With the footlet on his right hand, Wil Hafner gently — oh, so gently — reached inside the cage and captured one, and then a second, hummingbird. The first was a female, larger but not as colorful as the male. The second was a ruby-throated male.
Hafner passed each bird to Beasley, who banded, measured, weighed and released the birds.
The Barnes family of DeWitt made an appreciative audience.
As Kaylee Barnes said: "This is really cool."
As the days grow shorter, Beasley said, the birds will head to Mexico. These two, and others banded here, will perhaps return next year.
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