A Haven for Hummingbirds

Six months a year, Troy Gordon collects research on the birds in his backyard
Wednesday, October 8, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:02 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

Troy Gordon has been interested in birds since his freshman year in college, when he took a trip to Squaw Creek National Refuge and saw his first eagle.

“I was just enthralled that you could see a real-life eagle out in the wild,” he said.

Six years ago, Gordon’s interest in birds took a different twist. He was curious about how many hummingbirds he had in the backyard of his Columbia home. He was so interested in the number of birds that flocked to his flowers and feeders that he decided to launch a study.

Gordon had read articles about banding, which involves catching a bird and placing a small strip with a numeric code on its leg, and wanted to learn how to band great blue herons. He thought that he would learn how to band hummingbirds, find out how many were in his backyard, and move on to study herons.

To legally be allowed to band birds, Gordon had to apply for both a federal and a state permit.

To obtain a permit, banders must prove they have a good reason — such as a long-term study — for wanting it and prove they have experience banding, said Andy Forbes, a wildlife ecologist with the Audubon Society.

Because Gordon didn’t have experience, he studied with another hummingbird bander before applying for his permits.

Gordon has since caught and banded over a thousand ruby-throated hummingbirds as a volunteer. He said he has been hooked on the birds since he first held one in his hand. During the summer, the birds weigh less than a penny, and Gordon said that when one sits in his hand he can feel its heart racing.

His project of answering the question on the numbers of hummingbirds in his back yard has expanded. He hopes to find out the size of their summer territories, their lifespans and their migration routes.

Gordon spends 20 to 30 hours per week from April to September banding birds. He goes through about 150 pounds of sugar each summer in the feeders. He has also expanded from just his back yard to the back yard of a second home and has begun using the Wild Haven Nature Sanctuary to trap birds.

Gordon uses two types of traps. One is a bonnet trap, a cylinder-shaped trap that has a solid top and bottom with sides that move up and down. In the center is a feeder. When a bird comes to the feeder, Gordon uses a remote control to drop the sides and enclose the bird.

The other type of trap he uses is a Russell trap, in which feeders are hung in the center of a large, tent-like structure of fine mesh with one open side that the birds can enter through. The birds fly toward the feeder and become stuck in the mesh.

Once a bird is caught, Gordon makes and records several observations such as age, weight and sex. Gordon then attaches the band to the bird’s leg.

“When I first learned how to do this, my hands just shook,” he said.

During the summer, Gordon said, he catches birds as often as one every three minutes.

Gordon’s wife, Janine Gordon, helps him catch the birds.

“I think they are just fascinating for their size,” she said. “There is something about holding one in your hand that you just want to learn more about them.”

Gordon’s data is entered in a national database maintained by the U.S. Geological Survey. He is one of about 100 hummingbird banders in North America. Hummingbirds migrate more than 1,000 miles each year. If one of Gordon’s birds is caught elsewhere, the survey notifies him.

“I am amazed by the fact that a little bird with a brain no bigger than a size of a pea can remember to go to the same place each year,” he said. “I can’t even remember where I put my car keys.”

Gordon’s plan to also study herons is in the past. He said he plans to study hummingbirds for at least the next 30 years and plans to move to Mexico eventually to study lesser-known hummingbird species.

“This is a cool thing I can give to science,” he said. “There aren’t that many long-term studies being done.”

Although ruby-throated hummingbird populations are holding steady, Gordon said he hopes his research can be applied to other species that are endangered.

He also hopes that by showing the birds’ migration patterns he can help prevent loss of a habitat, which he said is the biggest threat to the birds.

“Volunteer studies like Troy’s are a great way to show long-term trends of populations and also get important biological information,” Forbes said.

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