Weighing in at about half of what a nickel weighs, the diminutive Broad-tailed hummingbird annually migrates more than 1,000 miles from Wyoming and the Rocky Mountain west all the way to middle Mexico, some stopping in the Bighorn Mountains to start a nest.
Despite its small stature, the Broad-tailed, along with other hummingbird species, are more important to a healthy ecosystem than most people realize.
That’s because in addition to pollinating the food we eat, a hummingbird may eat 1,000 tiny insects a day – including mosquitos, gnats and spiders. They are also ecosystem sentinels – providing early warnings of natural or human-caused environmental change – sort of a canary in a coal mine.
Despite the birds’ importance, though, North American hummingbirds remain one of the least-studied bird groups.
But with the help of a group of researchers from the University of Wyoming, that’s about to change.
Last month, those researchers – Holly Ernest, a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine who also holds a Ph.D. in ecology and teaches in UW’s department of veterinary sciences, along with Ph.D. candidate Brady Godwin, and Ernest’s son and researcher Graeme Ernest-Hoar – spent time at two sites in Johnson County examining the birds and collecting samples to test for DNA and disease status from hummingbirds that they hope will unlock some of the birds’ mysteries.
“We need established feeders; most of them are at private residences,” said Godwin of the locations chosen for studying the birds. “In a lot of ways, this project is run by the kindness of strangers.”
To study the birds, Ernest and Godwin have a specially designed net that is fitted over hummingbird feeders so that the birds can be gently and carefully caught.
“When the bird flies in, we let the nets down,” Ernest said.
The team then collects a DNA sample, a blood sample that is studied for blood parasites and “bands” each bird by placing a tiny federal band around its ankle so other scientists can identify the birds on their migratory routes.
Ernest is one of only 150 or so federally permitted hummingbird banders – a permit that can only be earned after years of practice and a supervised apprenticeship. Godwin is in training and expects to secure his Master Bander Permit soon.
“It’s important that people know that no hummingbirds are hurt in this process,” Ernest said.
The safety of the birds is the team’s No. 1 concern.
When Ernest began the Hummingbird Health Project more than a decade ago at the University of California, Davis, very little was known about the birds’ health or habits.
“There was basically no health information about hummingbirds and very little was known about genetic diversity,” she said.
Genetic testing can tell researchers a lot about the health and habits of the species, Godwin said.
Scientists believe – but so far have little data on which to base the belief – that hummingbirds return to the same area to breed each year.
“One way to figure that out,” Godwin said, “is to study genetics to see if they’re migrating and returning to the same point.”
After the “fun part” of collecting data this summer, Godwin will spend hundreds of hours processing the samples and analyzing the data in the lab at UW. It’s too early to know what the study will yield, but Godwin hopes that the results will give a better understanding of hummingbird ecology in Wyoming.
“What I love about hummingbirds,” Ernest said, “is that they’re ambassadors for wildlife conservation. Everyone enjoys watching hummingbirds at a feeder.”