Ellie uses an ingenious little trap to catch the hummers.  It's made of pink netting, a little larger than a 10-gallon hatbox, and shaped sorta like a circus tent.  The floor of the box is made of netting stretched across a more-or-less circular hoop.  There's another hoop at the top of the box, supported by three slender (1"?) sticks connected to the bottom hoop.  The walls of the trap are also mounted on a hoop hanging from the top of the trap, smaller in diameter than the floor of the box.  When the trap is open, the birds can fly thru the box, taking care only to avoid the 3 side supports.  Ellie hangs a feeder inside the trap, then raises the circular sides of the trap up to the top of the box.  The trap walls are attached to a length of fishing line that Ellie stretches from the trap across her shaded patio and through an open window into her kitchen.  We sit by that kitchen window and when a bird flies into the trap and perches to feed, she lets go of the fishing line and the trap walls drop quickly to the floor of the box, trapping the tiny bird inside.  The netting walls of the trap are held closed with a small dot of velcro.  Ellie hurries outside, separates the velcro and carefully reaches into the trap, then gently but firmly grasps the bird in her fingers and draws it out of the trap.  She adjusts the bird in her fingers, smoothing down its feathers and talking to it, and returns with it to the kitchen, where we reset the trap for the next bird.

     (If you click on the above link and scroll half-way down the page, you can see a picture of Ellie's late husband, Bill, retrieving a bird from the trap as I've described it.)

     Inside the kitchen, Ellie carefully guides the bird's tiny head through a hole cut in the center of a small soft cloth, then folds the cloth in half over the bird's "shoulders" (a la
Carol Burnett in her Scarlett O'Hara costume, the one with the curtain rod resting on her shoulders), immobilizing the bird's wings in the fold, then lays the bird on its back on the kitchen table.  I was reminded of a patient lying on an operating table, all draped and ready for surgery, altho' these little guys were very much awake and some chirped "bloody murder!" the whole time they lay there.  Ellie puts a tiny aluminum pre-numbered band in her small pliers, then raises the cloth, grasps the bird's tiny leg, and clips the band around it.  She measures the bird's wing and tail feathers, then tucks the bird into a small plastic bag and clips the bag to a hanging scale to weigh it.  The hatch-year male Ruby-throated Hummers that Ellie banded yesterday are smaller than my little finger and weigh about 2.8 grams each, slightly more than a penny.  We caught one mature adult male (ruby throat and all!) who weighed a "whopping" 3.4 grams!!  For as tiny as he looked, this little guy was "bulking up" before continuing his long migration flight south for the winter.

     Ellie said she's never counted the total number of hummers she's banded, but said that when she used to band every week in Vinita, she banded about 500 birds in a year.  We caught 8 birds yesterday and Ellie taught me how to distinguish a male from a female by examining the flight feathers.  I've always assumed that if a hummingbird has a white throat (I mean, among the Ruby-throats that we commonly see here in eastern Oklahoma), it's female, so I was very surprised when Ellie said that all the birds we caught were males.  A couple of 'em had one or two miniscule ruby feathers on their throats but others did not; nevertheless, an examination of each bird's flight feathers confirmed that they were all males.  Of course, you have to have the bird _in hand_ to be able to examine those feathers minutely, but I delight in knowing something about hummers that I didn't know before.

     Ellie offers each bird a drink at a feeder on the kitchen table before she lets them go.  Some just tolerate being held, others will take a few sips.  Ellie let me hold the first bird we caught and carry it outside so we could let it go.  She took a picture of me holding the bird and sent it to me this afternoon (see above); this little teeny-tiny bird and great big ol' Cyndie Browning.  I opened my fingers, and for a milli-second the bird rested in my open hand before it flew off.  What a thrill!

     I also want to mention the look of gleeful delight that comes over Ellie's face as she retrieves each bird from the trap.  She may have caught tens of thousands of these little dudes over the years, but each and every bird still brings her a moment of pure joy..... and I was there to witness that look this morning.  And even tho' I don't have a picture of it, I'll remember fondly that look of joy for the rest of my life.

     (After banding for 2 hours, we ate lunch at The Back Porch over at the Har-Ber Village Museum:  chicken quesadillas and a baked fudge ice cream sundae for dessert.  Mmmmmmmmm, good!!)

Hum-Banding with Ellie Womack
(c) by Cyndie Browning 08/05/2008
    Weeks ago, I wrote to Ellie Womack, asking if I could come watch (and help?) her band hummingbirds this summer/fall, and last week she invited me to come on up.  I drove to Ellie's house in Grove yester-morning (Tuesday), and by 9:15, we were all set up to start catchin' hummingbirds.