TOWN OF LIMA
The hummingbird in Mickey O’Connor’s hand cried out, sounding like a whimpering dog, but it was all good.
“Sometimes they’re screamers,” she said as she examined the bird, which only moments before had been caught in a hummingbird trap.
O’Connor led a group of volunteers who monitored the traps Saturday morning on the farm of Emily and Larry Scheunemann in the town of Lima.
Thousands of people band songbirds each year, O’Connor said, but only about 150 people in the United States and Canada are licensed to band hummingbirds. Two of those people reside in Wisconsin.
Volunteers brought the birds to O’Connor in mesh bags. She pulled them from the bags, gently cradling them in her hand, wrapping them in a nylon footie to reduce the danger of injury.
She weighed them while they were entangled in the footie, measured wings and tails, and inspected their beaks. Juveniles have grooved beaks. Adults’ beaks are smooth.
“Boy, this is a tubbo,” O’Connor said of one bird. She’s fat.”
The fat means the bird is getting ready to migrate.
Hummingbirds burn the fat during long flights. Unlike songbirds, which migrate in groups at night, Hummers are solitary travelers and do so in daylight, she said.
O’Connor used a special pliers to close a tiny metal band around one leg. Each band had a number.
The Schuennemans had invited people to watch the process. When O’Connor completed her examination, she placed the bird in an observer’s open palm.
In most instances, the bird immediately took flight with blazing speed. Once in a while, it would stay on the hand for a few seconds before the holder felt the high-speed flutter of wings.
The team had caught some of the same birds the night before.
“He weighs 3.54 (grams) this morning. So he’s down in weight a little bit,” O’Connor said to Kim Haebig of West Allis, who sat across a table and recorded the data with a pencil on paper.
The Scheunemanns have created a sanctuary for butterflies as well as hummingbirds on their property. They also tag monarchs, which migrate to Mexico each winter.
“What people don’t know is, they’re migrating all the time,” Larry Scheunemann said of the hummingbirds. “Some people think they have a hummingbird living in their yard, but it’s different birds (throughout the season).”
O’Connor compares urban and rural nesting sites in her own research. She theorizes the more feeders, the greater chance of establishing an urban site. Hummingbirds also seem to be attracted to places that have woods and the insects that go with them.
“People don’t realize how many insects hummingbirds eat. They’re eating machines,” she said.
O’Connor, an avian zookeeper at the Milwaukee County Zoo, records pollen buildup around the bill, dents and other bill deformations, and signs of molting, among other observations.
She will never use all the data, but another researcher might. She credits the other volunteers for their efforts:
“It’s citizen science at its finest.”
She also admires her research subjects.
“Hummingbirds are afraid of nothing,” she said as she held a sqawking bird in her hand. “They chase bees, eagles.”
Most of the hummers caught Saturday were juveniles. The adult males are the first to start the migration, O’Connor said. Adult females follow. Then the young ones, somehow, find their own way south.
“These young birds will stick around for a while because this is a great site—food, water and shelter,” O’Connor said.
Some will follow the coast of the Gulf of Mexico to Central America. Some fly from Florida over the gulf, some 500 miles. If they stop over the water, they die. The flight takes about 20 hours.
“I’ve seen them in Costa Rica, and you just look at them in awe,” O’Connor said. “It’s like, ‘how did you get here?’”