The Truth About Hummingbird Banding

You always hear about the banding of songbirds and raptors, but rarely about hummingbird banding. Turns out that it's an extremely specialized activity.

Banding a hummingbird is a very precise and delicate process.

Margy Terpstra/Hummer Haven UNLTD. Banding a hummingbird is a very precise and delicate process.

You always hear about the banding of songbirds and raptors, but rarely about the banding of one America’s favorite birds. Turns out that hummingbird banding is an extremely specialized activity. Read on to discover how it works, what makes it unique and a little about the people behind the research and tracking of these tiny treasures.


The number of banded hummers is low. Hummingbird banding started long after songbird banding, so researchers don’t have nearly as much information on the tiny fliers as they do on other birds. According to the North American Bird Banding Program operated by the U.S. Geological Survey and the Canadian Wildlife Service, about 309,000 ruby-throated hummingbirds have been banded since 1960. By comparison, more than 30 million songbirds have been banded.

Banding is a useful migration research tool. Most of what we do know about hummingbird migration is because of banding. The data scientists have gathered thus far tell us amazing things. For instance, we know that ruby-throated hummingbirds follow the same migration routes every year. They also arrive at and leave from stopover points on almost the same date each year, within a few days.

The process does not harm the birds. Hummingbird feeders equipped with curtains, netting or cages are monitored, and when a bird visits, it flips a switch and the netting comes down or the cage closes. This is a more effective method for capturing hummingbirds than the large mist nets usually used in songbird banding.

It starts with  a netting system to capture the bird (1). Then the hummingbird is gently prepared (2) for the tiny band (3). The bander inspects  the bird for overall health (4) and then  lets it go (5).

Margy Terpstra/Hummer Haven UNLTD. It starts with a netting system to capture the bird (1). Then the hummingbird is gently prepared (2) for the tiny band (3). The bander inspects the bird for overall health (4) and then lets it go (5).

Hummingbird bands are incredibly tiny. As you might expect, the bands that go around the leg of a hummingbird are minuscule—so small they fit around a toothpick or safety pin.  Typically, they measure just 1.27-1.52 mm in diameter and 1.6 mm wide. Each band bears a letter prefix followed by a four-digit number. The letter represents a five-digit number that is too big to print on the tiny band.

You can help. If you think you have a rare hummingbird visiting your backyard or a hummer that seems to be staying for the winter, banders may be interested in your guest. Increasingly, Western hummingbirds are showing up in the East, and you can help researchers find out why by alerting banders. Check out to see a list of Eastern banders.

Hummingbird banders are an elite group. Only about 150 people in the U.S. hold permits to band hummingbirds. They’re authorized to take part in the program after completing rigorous training. Unlike other bird bands, those made for hummingbirds are cut and sized by the banders themselves. Banders are also expected to follow a code of ethics.

Banding is quick. Hummingbirds aren’t in the banders’ hands for long. Banders work swiftly to record species, sex, age, weight, measurements and the birds’ overall condition. After that, banders sometimes offer the birds a quick drink at a sugar-water feeder before promptly releasing them.

Newly-banded Hummingbird takes off!

Margy Terpstra/Hummer Haven UNLTD. Newly-banded Hummingbird takes off!

Timing and location are important. It makes sense to kick up hummingbird banding efforts during migration. Banders gather at crucial flyway areas. Alabama’s Fort Morgan Banding Station, for instance, is the first landfall and the last departure location along the Gulf of Mexico for thousands of migratory birds, including ruby-throats. Banding in southeast Arizona is especially important, because this part of the international flyway hosts the greatest diversity of hummingbird species anywhere north of Mexico. Arizona researchers are able to examine tropical species heading north as well as common migrants like the rufous and calliope hummingbirds.


Banders are banders for life. Take Bob and Martha Sargent, who founded the nonprofit Hummer/Bird Study Group to track migrating hummingbirds and songbirds. Since they started their original banding station in their Clay, Alabama, backyard, more than 30,000 ruby-throats have been banded there. Other devoted banders spend years researching hummingbirds, running websites to spread awareness and doing banding demonstrations. So it’s true: Once a hummingbird bander, always a hummingbird bander.

  1. sally anderson says

    We’re on Vancouver Island, BC, Canada, and have been part of hummingbird banding for over 10 years. If you’d like to connect with our group, email me and I’ll send the leader’s email info to you.

  2. says

    I found your article interesting and helpful. For the past 20 years, I have been feeding hummingbirds and have several gardens for them. By mid-July, I usually have about 75 hummingbirds I am feeding. A bander has contacted me, and I am planning a hummingbird banding “party” at my home this summer.

    • says

      I live in Salton city California. that is in the desert. I have 32 bird feeders all eor hummingbirds. and I set out on my lone and watch them for a LLOONNGG time. there so easy to watch. I just love to watch only.

  3. robin carson says

    I remember years ago a local couple were Humbird banders. They even invented a type of net! It was in the city of Pittsburg Ks

  4. Veronica Klosiewski says

    The banding at Fort Morgan is over, the gentleman who ran it past away in Sept. They are still banding the hummers here in the SouthEast. I was lucky enough to have three hummers over the winter several years ago. They were banded, I got to hold them in my hand before they took off.

    • Rhonda Wright says

      The world of hummingbird migration studies lost a great one on Sept 7, 2014, when Bob Sargent of Clay, Alabama died. I was a life member of his HummerBird Study Group, which conducted the Fort Morgan AL banding, although I never got to attend a session. HBSG was a volunteer organization and no one else had the time plus expertise to devote to it. In addition to the spring and fall Ft Morgan banding sessions, Mr. Sargent would also come to your house to band any rare hummer species or overwintering hummers you spotted. NOTE: THIS ACTIVITY DOES NOT HARM THE BIRDS! Many of the birds he banded were recaptured and identified several years after being banded. For life stories and pictures, see:

  5. Peggy Durst says

    they have done this banding in and around the Macomb, Illinois area for several years– what a thrill to actually hold one of these hummers

  6. Pat Bleimeyer says

    I went to a hummingbird migration event in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Mr. & Mrs. Sargent were there. He did the banding. It was a day I will never forget — the most special day, and so very interesting. If you ever get the opportunity to see banding being performed, make it a priority.

  7. Mary Lynch says

    Jan. 18, 2014 was the start of a special winter season for us in Florida. We had the pleasure of hosting a Calliope hummingbird and having it banded by Mr. Fred Bassett. Our yard was a revolving door of visiting birders excited to see and photograph ‘Cal’ our Calliope.

  8. Karen Cobb says

    I have a hummer that has returned for 2 years now. I believe it is a RT but this year it has no color….just brown with white across and down it’s breast. She/he appears the last week of January and will stay hopefully through last year. I live in East Bradenton, FL. about 40 min. south of Tampa Bay.


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