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Bird watching
Hummingbird banders keep stats on tiny feathered friends

BUFORD - With the nectar made, the feeders in place and the traps set, birders came out in flocks Saturday morning to the Bird Watcher Supply Store with hopes of seeing a hummingbird banding demonstration. The only problem was someone forgot to tell the birds.

"We only got four today," licensed hummingbird bander Karen Theodorou said of the three-hour session. "But we still had a good day. We taught the people that came a lot about hummingbirds."

That they did.

Banding a hummingbird could be defined as recording certain features about the bird so that the species can be further studied by scientists at the Bird Banding Lab in Patuxent, Md. Once a bird is caught, a numbered band is placed on it's right leg with a special set of pliers. Before the "spunky, feisty" critter is released, a bander will measure its weight, wings, tail and beak while also recording its sex and general health.

Theodorou and Julia Elliott - both employees - together make up half the licensed hummingbird banders in Georgia. As banders, they'll travel all over the Southeast practicing the art at different times of years in search of 14 different species. Elliott said her love of birds in general stems from childhood.

"I've always watched birds, always fed birds and I was a customer here long before I worked here," Elliott said. "My e-mail (address) isn't the bird nerd for nothing."

Elliott said she never even knew people banded hummingbirds, but that once she saw a group doing it, she became a "banding groupie" immediately. She also said that in order to get her federal license to band, it took a long apprenticeship. Her knowledge of the species shows that too.

In the course of one half-hour, she informed the crowd gathered about all sorts of hummingbird facts while Theodorou minded the traps. For instance, hummingbirds can be seen in Georgia every month of the year and feeders should be kept filled all year long. They don't get many mites and are attracted to the color red. They prefer tiny insects to eat and live on protein. Their predators are praying mantises and large spiders. They usually lay two eggs about the size of a black-eyed pea. And their nests - about the size of a quarter - can usually be found 20 to 50 feet off the ground, but don't count on stumbling across one.

"Finding nests doesn't happen very often because they're very well disguised," she said. "They look like a bump on a log."

Elliott also said the hummingbirds we see in Georgia this time of year are on their way to Mexico and Central America and will fly over the Gulf of Mexico in an 18 to 24 hour direct flight. And that's with a tail wind.

"That's why they fatten up before they go," she said. "And a lot of the oil rigs have put up feeders now, too."

Elliott also said banders are now being trained in Mexico and Central America and that scientists are beginning to study their DNA. She said new things are always coming up, too.

"We just banded a new species this past winter. I didn't get to band it, but it was the green-breasted mango and it's the newest bird to be banded in Georgia," Elliott said. "It caused quite a stir down in Dublin, Georgia. That bird is rarely found outside Mexico. We're interested to see if he comes back."

Ten-year-old Maddie Helmick said she'll keep filling up the feeders in her backyard whether the green-breasted mango returns to Georgia or not.

"I like how small and cute they are," she said. "I'm even doing one in art class."