The 17th annual Hummingbird Migration Celebration was held Sept. 9 – 11 at the Strawberry Plains Audubon Center in Holly Springs, Miss. I was there for the second time and loved every minute of it. The opportunity to see these tiny jewels of the bird world fascinates me.
It was more than a festival about hummingbirds. The Natural Museum of Science brought skulls and pelts of different animals, mostly rodents; the staff discussed what impact these animals are having on the environment. The University of Mississippi presented information about water quality and conservation. There were wagon rides, vendors selling crafts with bird and garden themes, and a plant sale with native plants to attract pollinators and indigenous birds. Talks ranged from discussions about habitat for pollinators, native plants, preservation of bat colonies with live bats, and birdcalls. Kids sat in rapt attention as they listened to a lot of information about hummingbirds. Between talks, the kids were animated and enthusiastic about the displays.
According to their website, “Strawberry Plains Audubon Center is one of Mississippi’s finest natural and historic treasures. With a love of nature and profound foresight, two sisters, Ruth Finley and Margaret Finley Shackelford, entrusted their home and property to The National Audubon Society. Ruth and Margaret’s vision of protecting wildlife and their habitat from an encroaching and ever-growing urban area has directed our work for over a decade.”
“We continue their vision by restoring and conserving the 3,000 acres of hardwood forests, wetlands and native grasslands managed by Strawberry Plains. In the community, we work with landowners to develop habitat management plans that will help future generations enjoy the economic and social benefits that clean water and a natural environment provide. Strawberry Plains is committed to providing experiential and place-based education to students of all ages,” the site continued.
Northern Mississippi is part of the flyway for Ruby-throated Hummingbirds as they head to the Gulf of Mexico. The birds will fly hundreds of miles to reach Mexico and Central America. Strawberry Plains is such an inviting place that bouquets (or charms) of hummingbirds stop every year around Labor Day. They need to fatten up for the trip so that they can fly hundreds of miles across the Gulf waters in 18 to 24 hours to their winter homes. During their travels to the Gulf Coast, the birds may double in weight to a whopping 6 grams, fat that will be completely expended on their journey.
I first went to the Hummingbird Migration Celebration four years ago, to join my friend, Alex Mercedes, after she had moved to Holly Springs. This annual festival brings locals and tourists to see the birds up close. You might even have the opportunity to hold one in the palm of your hand for a few moments before it flies. The kids were enthralled and quiet as they allowed the birds to rest on their hands before they took flight.
That opportunity comes after the birds are banded. Southeastern Avian Research (SEAR) studies hummingbirds and part of their protocol is to catch, band and release the birds. As you might imagine from the size of the hummingbirds, the bands placed on their slender legs make tiny anklets. The bands are cut down to size from a standardized set of bands issued by The U.S. Geological Survey Bird Banding Laboratory. A part of the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Bird Banding Laboratory distributes bands so that birds can be tracked for studies. While education of the public is the main motivator of the festival, bird banding stations are present to gather data. The birds are caught in nets, handled by specially trained people, and then held within a nylon sock as they are measured for size, age and fat reserves. The procedure is skillfully accomplished in a few minutes.
Cyndi Routledge, who is a federal and state licensed master hummingbird bander with SEAR, heads up the hummingbird conservation and preservation program in Middle and West Tennessee. SEAR has volunteers who cover Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama and Florida. The Ruby-throated hummingbird breeds east of the Mississippi. “Through banding, we have proven they are faithful to where they breed and feed. Hummingbirds have a huge capacity for learning and memory. Five percent of their body weight is brain. They remember where all the feeders are on their routes. If you forgot to put your feeder out, and you see a hummingbird circling and buzzing the air, that bird has been to your yard and knew there was a feeder there. They know there is food there,” said Routledge.
While almost all ruby-throated hummingbirds fly to Mexico and Central America, some do winter over in the eastern states and some western hummingbirds winter in this area. As part of the winter hummingbird study, started by Bob and Martha Sargent of the Humming Bird Study Group, if you see a hummingbird at your feeder or in your yard after Nov. 15, SEAR asks you to contact them. A volunteer may come to your home to identify, capture, band, and photograph your hummingbird. The bird will be released back into your yard after taking down information for research purposes.
According to Routledge, education is key. She is often asked how to bring more hummingbirds to yards. She recommends that you feed them with sugar water without red dye – four parts water to one part table sugar; plant red, pink, and orange flowers; and use no pesticides. The correct habitat has bush or tree cover, and good bugs for their diet. Protecting the habitat for hummingbirds will protect it for other plants, insects and animals, for the whole ecosystem. The birds are such tiny gems flitting through the air, that they keep people interested in the environment. “If you don’t love something, you’re not going to fight to save it.” SEAR can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
A national organization, ebird, has a website for tracking birds at ebird.org as well as a wealth of information on a variety of birds.
Should you see a banded hummingbird in Western NC after Nov. 15, call or email Bill Hilton at email@example.com or (803) 684-5852.