Researching Hummers—One at a Time
The work of Bill Hilton, Jr.

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Bill Hilton, Jr. is one of only 60 hummingbird researchers in the entire United States and Canada with a permit to trap and band hummingbirds
Hilton Pond Center

Imagine holding a tiny bird — weighing less than two dimes but living and breathing, with hollow bones and tiny body feathers — and putting a ring around its microscopic leg! Bill Hilton Jr., doesn't have to imagine. He's done this more than 2,500 times! Bill says that bird banding is probably the single most valuable research tool in studying birds. His research has taught scientists a LOT about hummingbird migration. It has proven that individual hummingbirds return to the same areas year after year. His research has even given us information about how long hummingbirds live. It all started with banding!

Capturing Hummingbirds. Bill captures his birds in delicate nets called mist nets, and in traps that are set up around a hummingbird feeder. When a hummer goes to one of these feeders, Bill can pull a string and a trapdoor closes. This traps the hummer inside. Bill must be both fast and gentle in

  • getting the hummer out of the net or trap;
  • taking the weights and measurements he needs;
  • putting on its leg an official U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service band;
  • and marking the bird with a necklace of harmless green dye.

Banding a Hummer. Uniquely numbered hummingbird bands are engraved on a thin aluminum sheet. The bander cuts off the almost microscopic piece of metal and forms it into a ring. To put the band on the tiny bird's even tinier leg, he carefully places the bird in a tube that holds its body firmly but gently. This is done in the dark. Darkness makes the hummer less scared, which helps the bander to do his work without hurting the bird.

Photos by Bill Hilton Jr., courtesy of Operation RubyThroat

Cutting the Band to Size

Banding the Hummer in a Tube

Color-Marked Hummer

Why Green Dye? Bill puts green dye on the bird. The dye will disappear when the hummingbird molts its throat feathers. Why does Bill do this? He has two reasons:

  1. Hummers can stay in the same area for days, weeks, or even months. Bill doesn't want to retrap the same birds over and over; he can keep data on these marked birds without needing to read the leg bands.
  2. The dye helps people all over North America to recognize the birds banded at or near the Hilton Pond Center. In some cases people seeing the dye have alerted banders who trapped the bird, recorded the band number, and notified the Bird Banding Laboratory. This is how one of Bill's banded hummers became the first hummingbird EVER to be retrapped more than 10 miles from where it was originally banded. Once in a while when a hummer crashes into a window or car and dies, people who find it notice the band and report that. Bill gets important information that way, too. But when he releases each hummer, he hopes that it will live a long, healthy life. He hopes that someday someone else will capture it alive—the happiest way to learn about hummingbirds.

Try This!
Set up your own Hummingbird Habitat in your backyard or school grounds. For suggestions on how to attract hummingbirds, see Journey North's Unpave the Way for Hummingbirds and Operation RubyThroat's Attracting Hummingbirds.

Once you've started your habitat, keep notes about the hummingbirds that come. Whenever you see a hummingbird interact with another hummer or with another animal, record the date and what you saw. Share your observations with Journey North! And make sure you let Bill and Operation RubyThroat know if you ever find a hummer with a necklace of green dye!

Operation RubyThroat: The Hummingbird Project studies the behavior and ecology of the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. The project is open to students and teachers in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and the seven countries of Central America.It is an outreach activity of Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History near York, South Carolina. Bill Hilton, Jr. is the Center's executive director, and the one who started Operation RubyThroat. Like Journey North participants, people involved in Operation RubyThroat make observations about the timing of ruby-throat migration, and many of them also install Schoolyard Hummingbird Habitats.