Hummingbirds and the Rudeen Ranch
Winter can be slow to leave the deep Creek Mountains near American Falls in south eastern Idaho. The warming winds that blow up from the south bear the hint of summer. They also bring some of Idaho’s smallest residents. Every Memorial Day for the past several years a group of friends gathers at the rustic Rudeen Ranch to welcome the return of some well traveled hummingbird visitors from Mexico and South America.
Biologist Stacey Peterson oversees the enthusiastic volunteers who catch and study the hummingbirds. Through their work, Peterson and his helpers hope to build on our limited knowledge of hummingbirds, “We’ve learned a lot of things about hummingbirds – how long they can live. We’ve learned a lot about their diet, what they need to eat and what they need to survive through banding.”
One will typically see hummingbirds feeding on the nectar of flowers or sugar from feeders, but the bulk of a hummingbird’s diet comes from an unexpected source – bugs. According to Peterson, “A lot of hummingbirds require bugs. In fact most of the diet of a hummingbird is actually insects. They do feed a lot on sugar water out of plants or feeders and things but that is actually probably just the fuel that drives their body to search for protein in the form of insects and bugs.”
Catching a hummingbird without harming it takes a gentle touch and a clever trap. A volunteer will wait until an unsuspecting hummingbird enters a trap to feed on the sugar water in the feeder. Once the bird is captured it is carefully removed from the cage, placed into a cloth bag, and taken to the banding station where the researchers measure, weigh, and band the bird.
Inscribed on the aluminum band is a unique sequence of numbers which can be used to track the bird through a common national database. Over a thousand hummingbirds have been banded at the Rudeen Ranch, and many of them return to this same place year after year. Birds banded eight or nine years ago are routinely re-captured. The oldest re-captured bird on record dates back twelve years from the initial banding.
Peterson has dedicated a tremendous amount of time and energy to the study of hummingbirds. You might ask why? As Peterson describes, “Aside from the novelty of it all they’re just fascinating creatures in that they are so small yet able to survive such incredible conditions. Up here, about six thousand feet in the snow and it’s really fascinating to study something that we think of as frail but in reality are rather hearty.”
For the Rudeens, their fascination with these birds started decades ago as a simple hobby and has since become a passion. The Rudeens began with a few feeders, but have grown to develop a special relationship with the birds. While the birds enjoy a safe place to nest and raise their young, the Rudeens get a chance to renew their connection with nature and friends.
Working together, an Idaho rancher and a dedicated biologist are making lasting contributions to science while adding to our appreciation of one of Idaho’s most exquisite inhabitants.