In a process called banding, Julia Elliott of Marietta, who’s known as “the hummingbird whisperer,” wrapped tiny metal bracelets around the legs of eight ruby-throated hummingbirds caught on the garden’s property. She said the bands did not hurt the birds, comparing it to wearing a watch.
Each band has a letter and five numbers stamped on it, and Elliott said the birds are primarily tagged for research purposes.
“It’s like giving them a Social Security number,” she said. The identification helps track the birds’ movement, migratory paths, habitat preferences and lifespan. “If we don’t know where these birds are concentrating, then we don’t know what we need to do to help them or to preserve … the right kind of plants and the right kind of habitat to make sure that these birds are here for generations to come,” Elliott said.
Inspiring future generations is what motivated Jo Louis, of Powder Springs, to bring her 9-year-old twin granddaughters to Saturday’s event.
The retired city of Marietta employee said she purchased a hummingbird feeder for the first time this year.
“They’re just incredible little creatures,” Louis said of the birds. “They scrap — they’re selfish over the nectar — and we wanted to know how much to put out and what we should do, and we wanted (my granddaughters) to get more of an interest in it.”
Louis said her granddaughters, Cassie and Sydney, who live in Woodstock, love to observe the birds when they visit her house.
Cassie described their method to watch the birds undetected.
“Me and Sydney, like, hide behind pillows,” the fourth-grader said. “The last time we saw them, a wasp kept on scaring them away.”
Elliott recommended a saucer-type feeder to prevent bees and similar insects from getting into the birdfeeders, and a person in the crowd said she had success with putting out a less concentrated sugar solution for the birds than the suggested amount of 1 part sugar to 4 parts water. The person said making a 6-to-1 solution kept the hummingbirds coming, but not the insects.
Making her own solution was a surprising notion to Louis.
“I’ve been buying the best I could find — vitamin-enriched water — and we found out that’s bad. Just give them plain, white sugar water. It’s incredibly important,” Louis said, adding she learned other solutions may have toxins in them.
Sydney made sure to encourage her: “Don’t worry, you did your best,” she told her grandmother.
Elliott is a 17-year employee and general manager at Birdwatcher Supply Company, a local chain of five stores based in Kennesaw devoted to feeding and attracting wild birds.
She has had an interest in birds since her childhood. She started banding them 14 years ago after meeting a group that tagged songbirds on the Alabama coast.
“I was fascinated with being able to take my passion for birds and use that to actually contribute scientific information,” Elliott said. “I’m a bird nerd, what can I say?”
She trained with that group and earned her certification to tag hummingbirds six years later.
Elliott said the hummingbird permit is separate from other birds because they are so small. The birds she banded Saturday were no longer than her thumb. For each bird, she measured the length of its wingspan, tail and bill and she recorded its gender, age and weight. Because it is late summer, Elliott said noting the birds’ fat was important because they are about to migrate south for the winter.
“It’s essential for their survival that they put on fat stores, because that’s how they’re going to make this long trip to the tropics,” she said. She said most birds from here settle in or around Mexico and Central America, with about half of them traveling across the Gulf of Mexico.
“At some point, they leap out over the water and make a journey of about 500 miles to land somewhere in the Yucatan Peninsula and to get across the water like that. There is no place to stop,” Elliott said.
Richard Cole, of Kennesaw, who owns Birdwatcher Supply Company, said there are only about 100 people in the U.S. who are trained to band hummingbirds, and he feels fortunate to employ two of them — Elliott and Karen Theodorou, who manages the company’s Buford store.
“We don’t just sell birdfeeders,” Cole said. “We like to see that birds are taken care of.”
The event at Smith-Gilbert Gardens also included live owl viewings, a plant sale geared toward attracting hummingbirds and a craft table where children could make a hummingbird figure. The event is in its fourth year and garden officials said they were seeing a record number of visitors, estimating it topped out at 600 patrons.
Cole said the hummingbird banding at the garden was an important tool to educate people about what’s in their own backyards. “This is really good to let people see the birds up close and see research and it opens up a whole new world to them that they wouldn’t normally get to see anywhere else.”
To learn more about hummingbirds and the work Elliott and Theodorou do, visit www.facebook.com/Georgia.Hummers.