Extreme Makeover: Hummingbird Edition

The hummingbird traffic around the old homestead has been so heavy that it’s been dangerous just stepping out the door. Good diversity, too, with eight species. The activity has been highest in the early morning, late evening, and before and after thunderstorms, so it’s been hard to get good photos, but here are three Rufous reluctantly sharing a feeder with each other and a young male Costa’s.

3 Rufous, 1 Costa’s

Between drinks, as many as a half dozen at a time would line up on the utility lines over the front walk and driveway.

Hummers on a wire

Though there’s been no shortage of hummingbirds at our two official banding stations, I couldn’t resist the temptation to do some banding at the house. With Anna’s, Costa’s, and Violet-crowned around, which have a better-than-average chance of sticking around this winter and/or returning next year, there’s an opportunity to get some useful information from the effort.

When we band at our other stations, our goal is to limit our interference in the birds’ lives as much as possible in the process of gathering the data we need to achieve our research goals. This includes not interfering in natural events, even those that might be harmful to the bird. If a bird has parasites or a naturally acquired injury, we make note of it but don’t intervene. We’ll never know the fate of most of these birds, but those that are re-encountered can tell us a lot about how hummingbirds deal with these challenges.

At home, where the protocol is more flexible, I don’t feel like I have to keep my inner Florence Nightingale locked in the janitor’s closet. Yesterday’s banding provided opportunities to polish up my hummingbird karma by helping a couple of birds in need. One was a young male Rufous who had lost most of the feathers on the right side of his head. His right eye was sealed shut because the surrounding feathers were matted together by some rigid glue-like material – maybe sugar, maybe pus. Gentle washing with warm water on a cotton swab loosened his feathers and freed his eyelids, though he was still having trouble opening the eye. Then it was back in the holding cage for a gentle blow-dry. Though he looked much better afterward, his naked face still looked so ugly that I decided not to take any photos.

The second bird in need was a young male Black-chinned who looked like he’d lost a lot of feathers on his left side between the breast, cheek, and shoulder. Turns out that many of the feathers were still there but, like in the Rufous, were matted into hard lumps by some contaminant. So it was back to the bathroom for more warm water and cotton swabs. After a few minutes and a blow-dry my little patient looked much better.

BCHU makeover

No “before” shot, so you’ll have to trust me that this is an improvement. Even after a good fluffing of his newly clean, dry feathers, the plumage around his neck was so sparse that I could watch his crop filling up as I gave him his complementary drink before release.

There’s a good chance that whatever these young fellas got into wasn’t entirely natural, so helping them out wasn’t totally unjustifiable from a scientific standpoint. Hummingbirds are amazingly tough, and I’m optimistic for these birds’ future.

UPDATE: The partially denuded Black-chinned was seen at the feeders the next afternoon.

2 thoughts on “Extreme Makeover: Hummingbird Edition

  1. Pingback: Extreme Hummingbird Makeover Follow-up « Life, Birds, and Everything

  2. Pingback: Ms. Malaprop, Network News Anchor « Life, Birds, and Everything

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