Band of Hummers: All ages enjoy scientific task at San Pedro House

Published on Friday, Jul 18, 2008
Copyright Sierra Vista Herald

By Ted Morris

SIERRA VISTA — One of the coolest things you can do on a weekend afternoon is head over to the San Pedro House and take part in the banding of hummingbirds.

Under certain circumstances, and if you’re gentle, you can hold one of the little birds for a moment in time before it flies back into the wild.

It’s not heavy lifting. The black-chinned hummingbirds weigh about 3 grams — the mass of a penny.

A violet-crowned hummingbird rests in David Healy’s palm after being banded on July 5 at the San Pedro House. A violet-crowned hummingbird rests in David Healy’s palm after being banded on July 5 at the San Pedro House.

“Banding birds is very much like a human census,” said naturalist Sheri Williamson of Bisbee. She is the director of the nonprofit Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory, which has conducted banding sessions at the historic ranch house for 14 years.

“We can’t interview these birds and ask them about their lives and travels, so the next best thing is to give them an ID number, which is printed on the band, and hope that that bird is encountered again somewhere else by someone else, or at the very least back at the same location where it was originally banded,” Williamson said.

Sheri is the author of Peterson Field Guides’ “Hummingbirds of North America,” published in 2001.

A former zookeeper, she also used to keep cage birds. So she had handled some small birds, “But, boy, I was really shaking inside the first time I had to handle a hummingbird. I was so afraid I was just going to squish it. It takes a very, very delicate touch.”

Such a soft touch was demonstrated by a busy 11-year-old SABO volunteer, Bianca Antia, on a recent Saturday.

The home-schooled Antia said she has been helping since April after learning about the banding through the Herald/Review. Her family decided to check it out. They’ve been coming back ever since.

Using two hands, Antia carefully grasped a hummingbird and guided its beak into a feeder. She then placed the bird onto a waiting sponsor’s open palm, one step away from freedom.

Young people are very much a part of the banding sessions. Like older people, the youngsters are rapt as the banding process unfolds around them. They hover close to Williamson’s table as she and SABO volunteer Macre Inabinet work in tandem to record measurements and other data from each bird that has been captured by another crew of volunteers nearby.

Sheri first started banding hummingbirds when she and Tom Wood — they have been together 31 years now — first came to Arizona. They were living and working at the Ramsey Canyon Preserve for seven years as the resident managers. In 1995 they founded SABO.

Williamson first learned hummingbird banding from a team of banders who were doing a voluntary project at Ramsey Canyon Preserve. That project lasted five years, and Sheri and Tom got in on the last three years of it.

“They were very sneaky about it,” she said, chuckling. The couple were always invited to the banding sessions, “and we gradually got drawn into what they were doing, and the next thing I knew I had a pair of pliers in one hand and bird in the other.”

On July 5, Williamson was delighted when a violet-crowned hummingbird was captured near the San Pedro House by a SABO trapping crew that included Wood.

As of that date, this was only the third or fourth one that had been caught by the San Pedro River.

“They don’t visit the river all that often,” Williamson said. “They like to be up in the sycamores. They’re not that crazy about cottonwood trees.”

She put the violet crown on a scale — 5.4 grams. That’s large when compared with the more common black chins found along the river at this time of the year.

“Big, beautiful gal. Look at this gorgeous gal,” Williamson said. “She’s being very calm and dignified.”

One of the first things Williamson noticed was that this was a girl.

“This is a female. She has a little more black on the bill than a male would have. This is clearly an adult bird. It’s not a youngster.”

The bird, estimated to be at least a year old, based on her plumage, had not been previously banded.

“She’s probably from over in the Mule Mountains,” Williamson said. “There are actually quite a few violet crowns that live over in the Mule Mountains.”

Still holding the bird, Williamson recited various technical information to Inabinet sitting beside her. Inabinet dutifully recorded every item into a detailed log.

As Williamson scrutinized the creature, she noticed something else.

The kids and adults moved in closer to hear.

Williamson saw lot of smudgy staining on the violet crown’s chin, which, to Williamson, suggested that this bird had been feeding babies.

“Because, you know, they do a sword-swallowing act with the babies, and I think the smudgy stain on her chin indicates that she’s already had a nest this year,” Williamson said.

“She is absolutely gorgeous. This is very special.”

With the study completed, the violet crown was placed onto the open palm of David Healy.

Amazingly, she sat there, calmly, in the local astronomer’s hand for several minutes while several awestruck folks took numerous photographs. Then she lifted off from Healy’s launch pad and disappeared back into the riparian world.

“Arizona’s really the only state in the union that you can count on seeing violet crowns,” Williamson noted.

She said the violet crowns have shown up occasionally in Texas.

There are maybe a handful in remote corners of New Mexico.

“But if you want to see violet crowned hummingbirds,” Williamson said, “you not only have to come to Arizona, but you have to come to Southeast Arizona to see them.”



DONATE: For a $25 donation to the nonprofit Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory, you can “adopt” and name a banded hummingbird. Proceeds go toward the ongoing study of the winged creatures.

INFORMATION: For more information, visit or contact SABO at or 432-1388.

REPORT: If you happen to find a songbird or hummingbird that is wearing a band, please call (800) FAR BAND (327-2263) to report the number on the band.

BANDING: To learn the banding schedule, read Around Your Town in the daily Herald/Review.