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Meet the only three Michiganders who band hummingbirds

Researchers are trying to learn more about the ruby-throated hummingbird.

There are just three people in the entire state who catch hummingbirds and put teeny little bands on their legs so they can track them. You have to get special training and a federal permit to handle hummingbirds.

Allen Chartier is the first person to ever band hummingbirds in Michigan. He started in 2001.

“You have to have a very gentle touch, and you have to have a lot of patience, and you have to be able to work with small things and have really good eyesight. To become a hummingbird bander it takes a little bit of the right stuff. We’re not quite astronauts, but…” he says.

Chartier’s in charge of a research project called Great Lakes HummerNet. He and his team have banded about 8,000 hummingbirds in Michigan over the past 12 years.

On the day I met up with them last week, the three banders were gathered in homeowner Mary Bird's backyard in Battle Creek.

A male hummingbird with a brilliant red throat flew into a trap and Rich Keith went over to get him.

“I’ll block the door with my arm, reach in, let him settle in one spot… he’ll talk to us," Keith said, as the hummingbird made a chirping sound at us.

He put the bird in a mesh bag, and took it over to a glass table on the deck where his wife, Brenda Keith, was banding birds.

“I’ve always been fascinated with hummingbirds. Everyone is. It’s just a thrill to actually hold them and see what kind of things we can learn from them,” she says.

Allen Chartier slipped his hand into a mesh bag and held a bird gently between two fingers. He blew on the bird’s belly with a straw to move the feathers aside and pointed to a whitish area on the bird.

“That’s definitely an egg forming.  The eggs are the size of a Tic Tac. She lays a single egg that’s one third of her body weight and she lays two of those. They lay among the largest eggs compared to their body size of any bird. The kiwi in New Zealand lays a larger egg but they don’t have to fly!” said Chartier.

The researchers look at the birds’ bills with a magnifying glass, and they weigh them by tucking them into nylon footies – those things you put on when you try on shoes.

Chartier says this work is so specialized that most of their tools were meant for other things.

“I went through a period a few years ago when I was getting ready to do all of this, of buying a whole bunch of lingerie bags and nylon footies in the drug stores and having to deal with people looking at me, like ‘whoa, why are you buying two bags of nylon footies and twelve lingerie bags?’” he laughed.

They store the bands on diaper pins, and they slide the bands onto number two knitting needles to open them up before they put them on with pliers.

These researchers are starting to piece together some clues about the birds’ breeding cycle. And they’ve learned that about 15% of the birds they catch come back to the same place each year.

But there are a lot of mysteries left. And here’s the thing about all of this meticulous work: these guys don’t get paid for it. Chartier says long-term bird banding studies like his are usually not funded.

“I’d love to be paid to do this all the time, but society doesn’t value this kind of thing as highly as some other things, like baseball players. It’s got to be the passion for the subject that keeps you going,” he says.

All of the data they gather go to a federal bird banding laboratory at the U.S. Geological Survey… so other scientists can draw on it to learn more about these feisty little birds.

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.