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Joan Day-Martin is New Mexico's only hummingbird bander.

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Dances with Hummingbirds

Joan Day-Martin, New Mexico's only hummingbird bander,
has a calling—from the birds.

By David A. Fryxell
Photos by Lisa D. Fryxell

 

One spring day in the early 1990s, Joan Day-Martin was minding her own business outside her home in the Manzanita Mountains, east of Albuquerque, when a hummingbird named Butch buzzed by and changed her life. Neither Day-Martin nor Butch knew that was his name yet, of course, but the broad-tailed hummingbird returned on that same date each year for the next three years. It followed her around, flew through her hair, and somehow got into her heart.

Joan Day-Martin in her backyard hummingbird
sanctuary near Lake Roberts.

Thirteen years later, Day-Martin is the founder and executive director of Hummingbirds of New Mexico, a scientific and educational nonprofit organization. With 235 members, the group is "dedicated to the study and preservation of hummingbirds in the state of New Mexico." Among other benefits, members receive a twice-yearly newsletter, which Day-Martin has playfully entitled Dances with Hummingbirds. Besides educational programs throughout the area that Day-Martin puts on, Hummingbirds of New Mexico sponsors a two-day "backyard hummingbird festival" at and around her home in Lake Roberts, which doubles as the organization's headquarters. This year's third annual festival will be held July 22-23.

Even on a hot and windy summer afternoon, hardly prime time for hummingbirds, little aerodynamic showoffs buzz in and out of the feeders that festoon Day-Martin's yard, hang from her eaves and sit suction-cupped to her windows. Hummingbirds dart in for a drink, hover like tiny helicopters, zip off into the trees, and return for another sip of sugar water. The birds average about 30 miles an hour in flight, Day-Martin says, though a broad-tail can dive at 70 miles an hour, then pull up just before it smacks the ground. They fly in a distinctive figure-eight, she adds, demonstrating with a wiggle of her hand, rather than the familiar swoop-swoop motion of big birds like hawks and ravens.

"The military has studied how hummingbirds fly. They've tried to copy it, but can't quite get it down," says Day-Martin, whose long face, wind-tangled hair and softly back-country accent somehow remind you of Loretta Lynn—if you can imagine a brown-haired Loretta Lynn wearing a white-and-pink skirt and tennis shoes, topped with a Hummingbirds of New Mexico T-shirt.

Of the 10 hummingbird species spotted here (among a total of 18 different species in New Mexico), Day-Martin's backyard is currently dominated by just two—broad-tailed and black-chinned. She also has at least one breeding pair of magnificent hummingbirds—that's the species, not a mere adjective. By the time you read this, the Rufous hummingbirds will also have arrived.

"I can tell when the Rufous come in by their sound," Day-Martin says, adding that the buzz of a hummingbird's wings comes from flapping at about 76 beats per second— "That's just unimaginable."

Equally unimaginable to most people is the thought of being able to band a creature as tiny and fragile as a hummingbird, to identify the birds and track their migrations. But Day-Martin has banded 13,000 hummingbirds since 1994, as many as 1,500 in a single year. That annual figure represents five postcard-sized sheets of the wire-like bands—about the thickness of the metal in a soda can—at 300 bands per sheet, each of which she must precisely cut and trim herself. The unique identifying numbers on the bands—a letter plus five digits—are barely legible, in laser-printed type less than half the height of the words you're reading here.

Day-Martin is one of only 150 licensed hummingbird banders in the entire world, licensed by both the US Fish and Wildlife Department and the New Mexico State Game and Fish Department. (Since hummingbirds are strictly New World species, limited to North, Central and South America, practically speaking the "world" here means the Western Hemisphere. Pity the poor Europeans, Asians, African and Australians, who can glimpse hummingbirds only in zoos and aviaries.) She is the only hummingbird bander in New Mexico.

 

Day-Martin traces a straight—though not always easy—line between that first sighting of "Butch" and her current career as a hummingbird educator and bander. "I named him 'Butch,'" she explains fondly, "because he was so pushy. He'd chase everybody—chickadees, jays."

 

Humming Along

July 22-23
3rd Annual Hummingbirds of New Mexico Festival at Lake Roberts.

Hummingbird banding will take place both mornings from 7-10 a.m., weather permitting. Many educational presentations by various speakers and local artists will be part of this year's festivities, along with Native American food. Guided walks are available, although those wishing to take advantage are encouraged to reserve a spot. Bring layered clothing, comfortable shoes, binoculars, sunscreen, lawn chair, camera. For more information, call toll-free (888) 536-4266 or see www.hbnm.org.

Other Hummingbirds of New Mexico events:

July 7-9
Hummingbird banding at Bear Mountain Lodge, www.bearmountainlodge.com, by reservation only.

Aug. 12
Rio Grande Nature Center, Albuquerque, 379-5950

Aug. 19-20
Rockhound State Park, Deming, 546-6182

 

Butch was also quite literally an early bird. Each spring he'd arrive about a month before broad-tailed hummingbirds would be expected at that 7,500-foot elevation in northern New Mexico. Curious, Day-Martin mentioned Butch to the owner of a local wild-bird-feeding store, who passed the information along to University of Arizona hummingbird specialist William Calder. One day, Calder contacted Day-Martin to ask if he could stop by on his way back from Colorado.

"He took me under his wing," says Day-Martin, flitting right past her play on words. "He was a real hummingbird guru, who'd been banding longer than anyone else." Although Calder died several years ago, she says, "I figure he's still looking over my shoulder and guiding me along."

Becoming a hummingbird bander, Day-Martin adds, is neither easy nor cheap. "The more I learn, the more I know I don't know," she says. "I've taken classes in bird biology and ornithology, but I don't have a degree. I've learned a lot from field work and observation. I'm studying them all the time."

Being a hummingbird bander is not really a paying job, either. The Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and Bird Banding Laboratory in Laurel, Md., supplies the bands. Otherwise, she's on her own for everything from supplies to sugar.

But that's only the beginning of the sacrifices she and her husband, George, have made for hummingbirds. She chuckles: "Thank God my husband loves me! We were living in a mobile home and going to build a house. But I wouldn't let him build the house in the summer, because I was afraid it might disrupt the birds' breeding. So he built it in the winter. Now, at 7,500 feet in northern New Mexico, we got snow. And it had to be done before the hummingbirds came back!"

Her other concern was whether Butch would even recognize the place when he returned. "I was sitting on the deck of the new house when he came in across the valley," Day-Martin recalls. "He flew in, looked at me, looked at the house, flew all around me—guys really like to check a chick out, you know—looked in every single window. Then he got a drink and sat down. The house was different, so I was one of the things he looked at to make sure he was at the right location."

 

A few years later, after Butch's annual visits were just a memory, Day-Martin and her husband decided to change houses again—only this time, much farther away. He'd been caught in several layoffs and she'd suffered health problems. They began looking for a place to make a fresh start in southern New Mexico, where there's less snow and more hummingbirds.

After scouring the area and just about giving up, they went to look at a possible rental in Lake Roberts. The owner had a For Sale sign on the place, and was willing to sell or rent. Without so much as turning on a faucet to make sure everything worked, they used a $100 bill always carried for emergencies to make a down payment on the spot.

That was four years ago. Day-Martin says, "This is where I'm supposed to be."

The Lake Roberts house would also be headquarters to Hummingbirds of New Mexico, which Day-Martin had recently spent five months shuffling legal paperwork to make an official 501(c)(3) nonprofit. "Between 1993 and 2001, I'd been paying for everything out of my own pocket," she says. "I was astounded and a bit embarrassed when I totaled it all up. It wasn't just the cost of sugar that was breaking us!"

Not that keeping all those feeders filled isn't expensive: In the spring and early summer, she figures she goes through two and a half gallons of sugar water a day. Come the high hummingbird season of July and August, that goes up to five to six gallons daily—and the hungry birds would suck down still more if she'd serve it.

 

Some of her hummingbird visitors get briefly detoured in the trap that hangs not far from Day-Martin's front door, a simple contraption that looks like it's made of green hardware cloth. "I can catch all I need with that," she says. "I don't want them to have to wait too long to be processed."

"Processing" itself doesn't take long. "When I get whippin', I can band one every two and a half to three minutes—if they're cooperative."

Each hummingbird gets measured—bill (not "beak," Day-Martin corrects), tail and wingspan. Measured from the tip back to the point where the bill exits the forehead, the bill of a black-chinned hummingbird averages 22 to 23 millimeters, just shy of an inch. Though the bill looks like it could stab somebody, actually it's flexible enough that if a hummingbird smacks into a window its bill can fold almost flat against its chest.

She uses tiny calipers to measure the bill and wings, a clear millimeter ruler to measure the tail—a process that requires resting the end of the ruler right against the bird's rump. "I'm gentle," Day-Martin says.

Once she's taken all three measurements, "I wrap up the hummingbird like a little taquito in a bag, put it on a scale and weigh it." A calliope hummingbird, for instance, might weigh from 2.5 grams to 3.5 grams. Day-Martin likens the lighter end of that scale to the weight of a penny—which, she notes with a "what can you do?" shake of her head, the cheapskate US government has recently shaved from 2.6 grams to 2.5. When she weighs a heftier specimen—"a real porker," at 3.5 grams—she has to fight the computer program she uses to make it accept a calliope that big.

Determining the sex of a hummingbird can be a different kind of struggle, and Day-Martin freely admits that sometimes she gets it wrong. "The joke among hummingbird banders is that hummingbirds go to Mexico and get sex changes," she says, chuckling.

Particularly mysterious birds sometimes get a few feathers sent off to the University of Arkansas for DNA and isotope testing. The isotope analysis can tell where a bird was when those feathers formed. Running the project at the University of Arkansas is a former Silver City resident, Bill Baltosser. The world of hummingbird study, like the birds themselves, is pretty small.

Finally, Day-Martin affixes a tiny silver band around the hummingbird's leg and lets it go. Each band must be cut to fit the individual bird; female hummingbirds tend to take larger bands than males because the females "stomp around" the nest and their legs swell up.

Releasing a banded bird, she says, "is like putting a message in a bottle and throwing it out into the ocean, or like a needle in a haystack. There are so many birds, they're so tiny, and there are not many of us banders. If you work an area year after year, mostly you pick up your own bands."

New Mexico is home, at least parts of the year, to both the smallest hummingbird species in North America—the calliope—and the biggest, the blue-throated. Day-Martin looks up both species in a thick reference book, the "Bible" of hummingbird banders (in which she has made a number of handwritten corrections). The calliope's typical wingspan, she reads, is 37.2 millimeters—about an inch and a half—while the blue-throated hummingbird flies on more than double that, 78.5 millimeters.

The Land of Enchantment is such a hotbed for hummingbirds in part because of migration routes. "Rivers and mountain ranges all funnel them through here," she explains. "They become like roadmaps for birds."

Hummingbirds follow those "roadmaps" for thousands of miles. Some fly as far south as Central America, every year, only to return north a few weeks later. Some hummingbirds migrate straight across the Gulf of Mexico, a perilous 800-mile, nonstop flight that taxes their strength and endurance; if there's too much headwind, they may not make it. Hummingbird lovers man the Gulf Coast at migration time with rescue nets, just in case. Other hummingbirds fly as far north as Alaska, where the only species is the feisty Rufous.

That northern migration was dramatized by Day-Martin's most exciting banding discovery, way back in 1995. She found an adult female Rufous with an unfamiliar band, which eventually the Maryland research center traced to a bander on Vancouver Island. The bird had been banded just six weeks before, some 1,375 miles—as the hummingbird flies—away from New Mexico. At the time, it was the second-longest such encounter ever recorded. And when the hummingbird was recaptured the following year back on its northern breeding grounds, its round-trip went into the books as the longest ever recorded.

The Vancouver bander, Betty McGinnis, and her husband later made the trip themselves to visit Day-Martin and her husband. Last winter, Day-Martin was finally able to make her own migration to the spot, near the 50th parallel, where the Rufous had been banded.

"I was somewhat surprised at the lushness of the area that our tiny dancer had chosen as her nesting ground," Day-Martin writes in her newsletter. "She was a smart little bird. Lots of fresh water, towering trees—it even felt good walking upon the moss-laden path that she had undoubtedly flown above as she hawked for insects to feed her young. It is amazing to me still, the diversity of habitats hummingbirds utilize throughout their lifetimes during the different cycles of the season—unknowingly working hard all the while, pollinating beautiful flowers!"

 

These "efficient little machines," as Day-Martin puts it, might be hardy enough to fly thousands of miles, not to mention feisty enough to buzz birds 10 times their size, but that doesn't mean they don't need our help. "They're pretty tough," she says, "but they're still very fragile."

For example, when hummingbirds get cold or a storm hits, they can go into a torpid state where their heart rate and respiration slow. "They look like a cottonball with a toothpick sticking out," she says. But it takes awhile to come out of that state, so Day-Martin advises bringing hummingbird feeders in on cold nights, to be able to serve warm sugar water the next day.

"Isn't that what you'd want? A warm cup of joe in the morning?"

That's a perhaps extreme example of one of the four things Day-Martin says humans can and should do for hummingbirds. She briskly recites the list: "Offer food, water, shelter and space."

Food, in the form of a simple sugar-water solution, is the most familiar of these, and the one people most often get wrong. Day-Martin holds up an open palm: "The formula is right on your hand. Four fingers—four parts water. Ever wonder why some people suck their thumb? Must be because it's sweet—that's one part sugar."

If you have a problem with bees at your feeders, you can cut back to a five-to-one or even six-to-one ratio of water to sugar, she adds. Don't worry—hummingbirds don't depend only on feeders for sustenance, but will buzz around "hawking" insects such as gnats, and can even rob spiderwebs for food. No, they don't eat ants, which Day-Martin says she gets asked all the time. To keep up their frenetic pace, hummingbirds must eat twice their weight every day.

Use plain white table sugar in your feeders, she goes on, and for gosh sakes, forget about the food coloring. "I still see that at little old ladies' houses," she grumbles. There's some evidence that food coloring causes thin eggshells and blind young in hummingbirds, but absolute scientific proof that it causes urinary-tract problems. "It's pretty tough for these birds to find a urologist."

Food coloring isn't the stupidest thing she's seen in hummingbird feeders, though. People have been known to fill feeders with Gatorade, Kool-Aid, even liquor.

Besides bees, ants are another nuisance to hummingbird feeders: The formic acid in their bodies makes the sugar water acidic. Day-Martin suggests buying a feeder fitted with a water "moat" that the ants can't cross.

Bears can be a more serious problem, especially as the current drought drives them—along with raccoons, coatimundi, ringtails and chipmunks—closer to civilization. Worry creases her brow as Day-Martin mentions a recent bear sighting in her area. The best she can suggest is to bring feeders in at night if bears start poaching from the birds.

 

Besides sugar water for food, hummingbirds also need plain water to keep their feathers clean. But stagnant water—even bird baths—can foster bacteria, so moving water is best. Day-Martin leads the way out to a backyard pond, where water trickles over and around old logs, reeds, rocks and watercress. Her husband built it for her when she was on a banding trip to Rodeo, NM. "It was supposed to be a secret," she notes.

Other birds enjoy the pond as well, of course, and that's OK. "The more birds you have, the more species you'll get," she says. "Hummingbirds can hear the other birds and know that there's something nearby that can help them survive. It's like if you're traveling through the woods and off this way you hear people laughing and having dinner, you'll go toward that. For birds, it's the same thing."

At least people traveling through the woods don't have to worry about becoming prey for a praying mantis. Yes, unlikely as it sounds, a hungry praying mantis can catch an unwary hummingbird, rip off its head and devour it. Praying mantis are supposed to be good luck—but not for hummingbirds. Day-Martin suggests relocating the predatory bugs to the far side of your garden.

Other predators that might snack on hummingbirds include kestrels, roadrunners, frogs and even bass. Sometimes, Day-Martin acknowledges, the hummingbirds bring their fate on themselves: "They're very aggressive. I just got an email today about a green heron that was in these people's backyard, and a hummingbird flew up and did its 'I'm big' routine. The heron grabbed it and had it for a meal."

Don't blame the hummingbirds for their attitude, though. "They have to be pushy to survive in the wilderness," she says, deftly ducking an oncoming black-tail, "given the size they are and the lifestyle they have."

 

In the educational programs she puts on every year, Day-Martin tries to give people a better idea of that hummingbird lifestyle and what remarkable creatures they are. She'll have schoolchildren put on a hummingbird costume and try to flap their arms, figure-eight fashion, the way hummingbirds do—just for a minute. Many can't do it. Those who can, complain that their chest muscles hurt. No wonder the breast muscles are the biggest muscles on a hummingbird.

"The scientific community needs information like that we get from banding, but it's not always shared in a way the general public can relate to or even understand," she says. "In the long run, it's what you and I do that makes the most difference."

Day-Martin has two hummingbird nests that she uses in her programs—nests that were taken illegally, then given to her for educational use. Just big enough to encircle a dime inside, the nest holds an egg (broken, alas, after a blowout on the highway) about the size of the tip of your little finger. You'll seldom see a hummingbird nest in the wild; they're usually on smaller branches in the outer quarter of trees, anywhere from three to 30 feet off the ground. Hummingbirds swipe spiderwebs to weave into their nests for strength and flexibility, along with lichen, cattail fluff and other fibers. As the chicks grow, the webbed nest expands to accommodate them.

Hummingbird eggs take 18 to 21 days to hatch; then a similar period passes before the chicks are ready to leave the nest. The mother will keep an eye on the chicks for another 10 to 18 days beyond that, Day-Martin says, as they're weaned to living fully on their own.

Another "did you know?" fact she likes to share in her programs is that the bright colors of hummingbird throats (and sometimes their caps) comes not from pigment but from a trick of light. Tiny hairs called barbules split the sunlight into beams of pure color, something like a prism or the way a soap bubble creates a rainbow. That's why when you look at a hummingbird from one angle, its throat seems black—the actual color of the feathers—but from a different perspective it appears brilliantly blue or ruby-colored.

Day-Martin tries not to draw attention, however, to another quirk of hummingbird physiology she sometimes encounters during banding demonstrations: Their tongues, which flick out to take in sugar water, can get stuck. Three or four times now, she's banded birds with tongues stuck in the "out" position. Each time, she's been able to release the tongues and thereby save the birds' lives, but still. . . . These are fragile little birds, and the last thing she wants to happen is to rip out a hummingbird's tongue in front of a group of impressionable schoolkids.

Shaking off this thought with an exaggerated shudder, Day-Martin says, "People are so ignorant of the wildlife around them. They are all in our care. If we don't take care of them and do it right, they're not gonna be around forever. We're all in this together, all hooked on this chain. You can't let go of any part of the chain and expect it to be strong."

In the future, she'd like to see more people come here, to her bird-filled backyard in Lake Roberts, for educational programs, rather than having to travel so much. She'd also like to have time to write a book about Butch, the hummingbird that started it all.

"Sometimes you don't know what to do with your life," Day-Martin reflects, watching the darting dance about her feeders, "and then a small creature like that comes along and says, 'I need you.'

"They're not 'my' hummingbirds. I belong to them."

 

For information on Hummingbirds of New Mexico, or to join, write HC 68, Box 169, Silver City, NM 88061, call toll-free (888) 536-4266, email hbnm@gilanet.com or see www.hbnm.org.

David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure.

 

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