Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966


Expert bands 100 hummingbirds


Fred Bassett

A weekend banding project on rufous hummingbirds may provide insights into where the tiny fliers go each winter and how long they live.

Thousands of hummingbirds descend on Haines each spring to eat, mate and nest, said Fred Bassett, an expert on the species who is leading the banding work.

Hummingbirds arrive here in May and fly south before August, attracted by relatively easy feeding and freedom from competition with other hummingbirds that populate their southern, winter habitat, he said.

Bassett, who leads the nonprofit Hummingbird Research Inc ., banded 100 birds here – including 40 at one Lutak Road residence. He recently banded 350 others in Ketchikan, Sitka and Juneau. Those numbers are high enough to potentially yield important information for scientists, he said.

Rufous hummingbirds from Alaska are believed to spend most of the year in central and southern Mexico, traveling back and forth along the Rocky Mountains. But they’re elsewhere, too. Bassett believes a portion of the birds from the southeast United States summer in Alaska. One tagged in Tallahassee, Fla ., was discovered six months later by a scientist in Chenega Bay, he said.

Although some scientists believe that there has been a surge of hummingbirds in the southern states like Florida, Georgia, and Texas, Bassett doesn’t agree. “There’s no giant change,” he said. “The only thing that’s changed is we have gotten smarter about hummingbirds.”

With the high concentration of hummingbird feeders in the Haines townsite, each house presented only a few hummingbirds for Bassett’s work. In areas outside town, particularly where feeders had been set up for long periods, Bassett was able to capture and tag significantly more.

To capture birds, Bassett set up a cage-like trap around existing feeders. Once inside the trap, the birds become fairly docile.

“Hummingbirds are convinced they’re the meanest creatures in the world,” Bassett said, and that makes them easy to hold. Sometimes they’re reluctant to leave his palm, he said.

Tiny aluminum bands cut by hand are marked with a number and letter combination. These numbers are logged into the National Bird Band Laboratory database, which keeps track of banded birds and reports discovery of bands to original banders.

An expert in bird handling, Bassett has been working with birds more than 20 years. He said that he’s one of only a few bird banders traveling around the United States, particularly in southern states, banding birds. He’s licensed to handle a variety of birds, but hummingbirds are his favorite, he said.

A common misconception about hummingbirds is that they “hitchhike” on the backs of other, larger migrating birds. The belief is traced to artist and naturalist John James Audobon, who maintained that when he shot a goose, a hummingbird tumbled off its back.

Rufous hummingbirds travel under their own power, Bassett said. They don’t have much to carry, weighing about one-tenth of an ounce each. Besides flower nectar, they subsist on insects. They live three to five years, although one was documented to live eight years.

Hummingbirds are attracted to red and other bright colors that look like flowers. Sugar water doesn’t provide nourishment, but may help give an energy boost that helps them catch insects, Bassett said. The recommended proportion is one part sugar to four parts water.

The rufous isn’t Alaska’s only hummingbird.There’s also the Anna’s hummingbird, but it’s rare and found only in Southwest, Southcentral and Southeast Alaska.