A tiny band: Researcher focuses on state hummingbirds

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Anna Marie Lux
Monday, August 4, 2014

WHITEWATER--Mickey O'Connor knows better than most that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

She set up her specially designed traps late last week in the avian-friendly yard of Emily and Larry Scheunemann of rural Whitewater.

O'Connor's intent was to capture, band and release ruby-throated hummingbirds without harming them.

But a few feisty hummers got in the way.

Every time a hummingbird approached one of O'Connor's six roomy traps, aggressive males chased it away to defend their territories.

At the end of the morning, O'Connor had banded only one hummingbird. In September 2013, she banded 26 hummers in the same yard. O'Connor plans to return to the Scheunemann home at the end of August for another try.

Her effort is an important first.

O'Connor believes she is the only person licensed to band hummingbirds in Wisconsin and the only one focusing on nesting and migratory hummingbirds in the state.

“We see them and assume they are doing well,” O'Connor said. “But we really don't know. The data I collect will help researchers learn about their longevity and migration routes.”

Banding efforts in other places already have uncovered remarkable information.

Researchers recently documented the longest hummingbird migration ever recorded. A bird banded in Tallahassee, Fla., was recaptured in Alaska's Prince William Sound, more than 3,500 miles away.

When O'Connor is not banding birds in her free time, she works in the avian department of the Milwaukee County Zoo and is an active member of the Wisconsin Society of Ornithology.

She completed intense training to become a hummingbird bander last year in West Virginia, where she trained with hummingbird expert Bob Sargent.

“In three days, we banded 200 birds,” she said.

O'Connor is one of only 150 people in the United States and Canada who are permitted to band hummingbirds.

She submits information about the bird's overall condition and measurements to the Bird Banding Laboratory of the U.S. Geological Survey.

O'Connor captures birds in homemade traps with small openings. Traps are baited on the inside with nectar feeders.

Once inside the trap, a hummingbird generally flies up, and O'Connor reaches inside through a slit in the back and gently cups the bird in her hands. She then removes it from the trap and places it inside a small soft bag.

At a banding table, O'Connor uses a jeweler's magnifier to examine the bird and take measurements with a small ruler. She also uses pliers made specifically for hummingbirds to wrap a teeny aluminum band with a number around the bird's leg. The band is so small that she must cut and form it herself.

“Cutting bands is time consuming and tedious,” O'Connor said, “but it needs to be done correctly to insure accurate size and smooth edges. A band does not harm the bird as long as it is made properly.”

The bird's well-being is a priority in her work.

“If I trap one that doesn't settle down, I will let it go,” she said. “It is not worth traumatizing them. It's always about the birds.” 

O'Connor has eight private sites, including the Scheunemann yard, where she collects data. To date, she has banded 100 hummingbirds in the state.

O'Connor does it out of love.

“I will band until I die,” she said. “I'm all about avian conservation.”

Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com


Larry and Emily Scheunemann know how to create a hummingbird magnet.

They planted their yard in Rock County's town of Lima with flowers and shrubs favored by the tiny iridescent birds.

Among the most dazzling plants to attract hummers are red bee balm, cardinal flower, butterfly bush and coral honeysuckle.

The Scheunemanns give public programs about how to make yards attractive to birds, including hummingbirds.

Their home has a chair in front of most windows to view hummers zooming from bloom to bloom in their lush yard.

Emily said hummingbirds are amazing is so many ways.

They are fearless and ferocious and defend their feeding areas with unending zeal. They harass intruders, ranging in size from bees to hawks. They are small but not frail. The birds migrate nonstop some 18 hours or 500 miles across the Gulf of Mexico from Central America and Mexico to the United States.

They also have powerful muscles that enable them to hover and fly left, right, backward, forward and even upside down. They also can accelerate from a dead stop to lightning speed in seconds.

“They are much more than just pretty birds,” Emily said. “The more you learn about them, the more you know they are absolutely amazing. We can sit and watch them for hours.”




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