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Sage Experts: Nancy Newfield, Hummingbird Gardener, Part III

First posted on Jul 7, 2016

Sage Experts: Nancy Newfield, Hummingbird Gardener, Part III

It is ironic that one of the least social types of birds inspires so much sociability in human beings. We refer to hummingbirds, which are the object of festivals and the communal effort of bird banding research nationwide.

This article, which focuses on hummingbird banding, is the third in a three-part series about Louisiana citizen scientist Nancy L. Newfield who has studied hummingbirds for more than 40 years. Citizen scientists are volunteers. Despite never gaining a degree in biology or zoology, Newfield took her interest in hummingbirds to a professional level when they captured her heart and scientific curiosity.

The first article talks about how Newfield, as a volunteer, became a renowned hummingbird expert and changed ornithology. It also shares information about the hummingbird plants in her garden. The second concerns her transformation into a hummingbird gardener,discusses hummingbird attraction to red and provides a list of red sages that the birds love. We conclude this third post and the series with a list of favorite hummingbird flowers for varying regions of the nation.

The Casa Colibri Krewe

Hummingbirds bring together hardworking yet convivial groups of birders for banding events that have a celebratory atmosphere.

That's the way it is for Newfield and her Louisiana banding krewe (New Orleans parlance for "team"), who are serious about their work but take time for friendly conversation. All are volunteers, including Newfield. She is the only one who possesses a federal hummingbird banding permit, which is difficult to obtain. At present, her krewe includes two banding associates, an IT data manager and four assistants.

The crew meets regularly -- but usually not all at the same time -- at many locations to band hummingbirds for the Louisiana Winter Hummingbird Project and the separate Ruby-throated Breeding/Migration Project.

From July 1979 to about 2007, Newfield often worked alone or with the help of the homeowners who would host bandings in their gardens. Occasionally, an assistant she had trained would be there to help. By July 2015 -- 36 years after she officially began the winter banding project -- Newfield and a few other banders affiliated with the project had banded 7,208 hummingbirds from 11 different species.

At one time, ornithologists thought that Louisiana only had Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and that any other species observed was a rarity. Newfield and her team proved that wrong. To educate the public about banding and the state's many kinds of hummingbirds, they demonstrate banding at hummingbird festivals.

Newfield's home in Metaire, just outside New Orleans, long ago was dubbed Casa Colibrí or "hummingbird house" in Spanish. So her banding team is known as the Casa Colibrí Krewe. They gather throughout the year, but most heavily in winter and fall, and primarily at homes where gardens are filled with hummingbird flowers. There they gently capture, band, study and then release hummingbirds.

Following Mardi Gras in February 2015, Everything Salvias visited with the Casa Colibrí Krewe to observe banding firsthand and discovered that it takes an intense amount of teamwork, or human sociability, to get the job done.

Before detailing the banding process, let's take a brief side trip into the subject of bird sociability.

From Apartment Dwellers to Loners

Some birds are highly sociable. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology notes that flocks of up to 30 Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) have been observed sharing a meal of fruit in a crabapple tree.

South Africa's Social Weavers (Philetairus socius) are perhaps the most sociable birds in the world. Although they may rely on a bit of aggression to get the job done, as indicated by National Geographic, they work cooperatively to build the world's largest nests.

BirdNote reports that some of the Social Weavers apartment-like structures house 500 birds at a time, weigh more than a ton and are used by multiple generations for up to 100 years.

In contrast, hummingbirds are loners except for mothers raising babies. Males and females don't form cooperative mated pairs that work together to build nests as explained in the sidebar "How Ruby-throated Hummingbirds Build Nests", which is an excerpt from Newfield's book Louisiana Hummingbirds. The accompanying video shows nest building in action. In contrast to the Social Weavers, they build the smallest of nests and without nextdoor neighbors.

Hummingbird parents also don't share feeding of their young. Once again that is the mother's job. And whether male or female, they don't migrate in flocks.

Finally, hummingbirds don't like to share food sources, because they struggle to get enough calories to survive. This often makes them so fiercely territorial that they attack other hummingbirds trying to feed at their favorite plants.

Yet hummingbirds are so pretty and such daredevils in the air -- diving from great heights; flying backward and upside down as well as forward; hovering for a drink of nectar, because they can't perch on flowers -- that they are charming loners.

Hummingbird Banding in the Kitchen

It is cool enough that sweaters are necessary on the day we meet the Casa Colibrí Krewe at Barbara and Michael Gauthier's home in Thibodaux (pronounced TIH-buh-doe), southwest of New Orleans. Although the Gauthiers aren't part of the banding team, they have been hummingbird lovers for a long time.

Due to the chill, the banding team is working at a dining table off of the kitchen instead of at a bench outdoors.

In 1998, Newfield retrieves a hummingbird from a banding trap
Steve Locke blows through straw
to observe hummingbird fat

Courtesy of Alicia Rudnicki, FBTS.

Thibodaux is deep in the heart of southern hummingbird country on Bayou Lafourche. Even in winter, the area is a lush green. The winter low in southern Louisiana is about 45 degrees, so flowering is not unusual at this time of year. It's a climate just right for many kinds of winter-blooming Salvias. The Gauthier's garden has the kinds of flowering plants that appeal to hummingbirds, but none are flowering this day due to an unexpected frost.

So hummingbirds visiting the Gauthier's gardens will have to make do with nectar feeders until spring growing season. One of the feeders is inside a wire cage called a "trap" that is set up outside a window in the dining area. It's next to a Sweet Olive (Osmanthus fragrans) bush in which hummingbirds like to take shelter due to its dense foliage. (This illustrates a key hummingbird gardening idea of planting shelter-type shrubs and nectar plants where the birds can be viewed easily.)

As soon as a hummingbird enters the trap, a krewe member on observation duty clicks a remote control to close the trap's door. Then another member reaches into the trap through a sleeve to catch the hummingbird without giving it a chance to escape. Today, Sammy Maniscalco and biology graduate student Jenny Hazelhurst are on trap duty taking turns placing the birds in protective cotton bags before bringing them indoors for measurement and banding.

Steps in the Banding Process

Banding encompasses many steps during which someone acts as recorder and takes notes based on what the banders report, such as band number and measurements. The steps include:

  • Setting up the birdcage-like trap -- with a nectar feeder inside it -- in a garden
  • Preparing hummingbird bands by snipping them from an aluminum sheet preprinted with band numbers and using a special tool to shape them into circles
  • Readying equipment such as a loupe (magnifier) and pliers for closing bands
  • Resetting the trap after capturing and bagging a hummingbird
  • Examining the bird to determine its species, sex, age and whether it has been banded previously
  • Banding the bird unless it already has a band
  • Examining its tail feathers and measuring its wing, tail and bill length
  • Blowing gently on its breast and belly to assess the amount of fat it carries (wintering hummingbirds have little, if any)
  • Weighing the hummingbird, which requires first wrapping it in plastic mesh held closed with a clip
  • Marking its head with a dot of white-out or some other harmless paint-type material and
  • Releasing the hummingbird outdoors after all recording is complete.

For the onlooker observing experienced banders, the steps from initial examination to marking the head happen rapidly. Marking the head may seem odd to the first-time viewer. However, it ensures that the banders aren't stressing hummingbirds by capturing them repeatedly. The spot is easier to see than a leg band when a hummingbird is in a trap. It's essential, because hummingbirds may visit a garden many times and even spend an entire season there.

This is a good point at which to note a helpful resource for visualizing the banding process. In 2002, the Hummingbird Journey North website (formerly part of the Annenberg Foundation and now managed by the Arboretum of the University of Wisconsin - Madison) sent science writer Laura Erickson to observe Newfield at work. Erickson created a tutorial-style, step-by-step photo essay about the banding process from capture to release.

Intense Effort Mixed with Sweet Moments

Hummingbird banding is methodical. It requires smooth teamwork between the person in charge of the trap, the banders and the recorder. It's intense, because it has to be done quickly to create less stress for the birds. Also, measurement or recording errors skew data on which ornithologists and biologists rely. They need accurate information from banding permit holders and their teams, which may include sub-permittees, such as Newfield's longtime associate Steve Locke. Sub-permittees may band, but only accompanied by a banding permit holder.

Careful gathering of information helps scientists gain a bigger picture of events, including spring and autumn migration. It also aids them in spotting trends, such as whether an increasing number of hummingbirds are choosing to overwinter in warm winter regions of the U.S. instead of migrating to Mexico and Central America.

So when Barbara Gauthier graciously offers her guests a slice of hummingbird cake, work continues between bites of the cinnamon-rich delight. Newfield takes a break to eat some cake. After all, it's her birthday. However, she and Locke never eat when in the process of banding. "Safety of the birds is the first order of business," she says.

Cake or no cake, others remain on task as well: The recorder, Beth Maniscalco -- who wears hummingbird earrings today -- keeps entering data on paper forms as Newfield and Locke announce it. Sammy Maniscalco continues to monitor the trap. And the Gauthiers grandchildren pop in and out of the room to find out when they will be allowed to hold and release a hummingbird.

Then, as the day warms, hummingbird activity decreases and the trap stands empty. The last hummingbird to be banded is set free and bantering among the banding team increases. It's time for lunch and lively conversation before moving on to another host's hummingbird garden.

Hummingbird Festivals

The annual Feliciana Hummingbird Festival in September at St. Francisville (north of Baton Rouge) is one of the public gatherings where the Casa Colibrí Krewe demonstrates banding.

Elsewhere throughout the nation, many hummingbird festivals are held from March (beginning of spring migration) to October, which is the approximate end of autumn migration to winter nesting grounds. Hummingbird Guide publishes one of the best lists of festivals we've found online.

Meanwhile, every day is a hummingbird celebration for Newfield. She tells us that during slow times for banding, such as in summer, she begins her day by watching hummingbirds from her front porch as she sips her morning coffee.Every day is also a hummingbird festival in the test fields and greenhouses of Flowers by the Sea Farm because we grow such a wide range of Salvias that plants are blooming throughout the year. Our moderate coastal climate in California's Mendocino County makes this possible and encourages Anna's Hummingbirds to live here year round.

How Ruby-throated Hummingbirds Build Nests

by Nancy L. Newfield
Excerpted from Louisiana Hummingbirds
(2011, Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program)

Editor's Note: In her book, Nancy Newfield explains that male and female hummingbirds don't form cooperative pairs. After mating, they go their separate ways. It's the female that builds the nest and finds food to feed the babies. The video embedded here shows a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird building a nest and shaping it to her body.

Female Ruby-throated Hummingbirds establish their own territories centered on the nest site. Preferred sites are usually on slim, downward sloping twigs with an overhanging canopy of leaves. Often the nest is located above a stream, but sometimes a roadway makes a suitable substitute. Height above the ground or water can be as low as five or six feet to as high as fifty feet. Generally, good sites have few, if any, nectar sources nearby to reduce interaction with dominant males that may be drawn to an abundance of food.

After arrival, a female wastes no time to search for a suitable nest site and to initiate construction, using plant down, especially those of dandelion or thistle. Some nests have bud scales incorporated into them as well. Spider silk is used to bind the structure to the substrate and to lash the nest materials together. Lichens, applied to the exterior during incubation, camouflage the nest. Six to ten days are required to complete the major part of the soft cup, which is roughly the size of half a walnut shell.

When the nest is nearly complete, the female leaves her territory to seek a mate.

A Rainbow of 15 Salvias Attractive to Hummingbirds

Hummingbirds don't only have eyes for red. They love the nectar of tubular flowers in many colors. But it helps to include Salvias in the red range -- this includes pinks, oranges and some purples -- to any hummingbird garden. The red range broadcasts a come-and-get-it message that helps attract hummingbirds to flowerbeds containing a rainbow of hues.

Louisiana hummingbird expert Nancy L. Newfield has grown many kinds of Salvias (true sages) to attract hummers. She has identified plants in this list that are particularly good hummingbird attractants in her region. They are noted with the phrase "Southeastern hummingbird garden success."

Although Autumn Sages (varieties of Salvia greggii) grow well in many parts of the South, Newfield says the water table is too high in the New Orleans area for in-ground success. She does, however, grow some in containers.

Here is a rainbow of FBTS hummingbird plants to grow in many parts of the nation.


Arizona Blue Sage (Salvia arizonica) Zones 6-11

  • Blooms summer to fall
  • 24 inches tall and wide in bloom
  • Partial Shade
  • Drought resistant; appreciates average watering


Big Orange Autumn Sage (Salvia greggii 'Orange Yucca Do') Zones 7-9

  • Blooms spring to fall
  • 36 inches tall and 48 inches wide in bloom
  • Full sun to partial shade
  • Drought resistant; appreciates average watering

Big Leaf Mountain Sage (Salvia microphylla var. neurepia) Zones 7- 9

  • Blooms spring to fall
  • 48 inches tall and wide in bloom
  • Full sun to partial shade
  • Average watering
  • Southeastern hummingbird garden success

Cundinamarca Sage (Salvia gachantivana) Zones 9-11

  • Blooms spring to fall
  • 96 inches tall and 48 inches wide in bloom
  • Full sun to partial shade
  • Appreciates average to ample watering


St. Charles Day Mountain Sage (Salvia microphylla 'San Carlos Festival') Zones 7-9

  • Blooms spring to fall
  • 36 inches tall and wide in bloom
  • Full sun to partial shade
  • Drought resistant; appreciates average watering
  • Southeastern hummingbird garden success (one of Newfield's favorites)

John Whittlesey Sage (Salvia x 'John Whittlesey') Zones 7- 9

  • Blooms spring to fall
  • 48 inches tall and 60 inches wide in bloom
  • Full sun
  • Drought resistant; appreciates average watering


Wild Thing Autumn Sage (Salvia greggii 'Wild Thing') Zones 6-10

  • Blooms spring to fall
  • 36 inches tall and 24 inches wide in bloom
  • Full sun to partial shade
  • Drought resistant; appreciates average watering

Pink Mexican Bush Sage (Salvia leucantha 'Danielle's Dream') Zones 8-11

  • Blooms summer to fall
  • 48 inches tall and 36 inches wide in bloom
  • Full Sun
  • Drought resistant; appreciates average watering
  • Southeastern hummingbird garden success

Wendy's Wish Sage (Salvia x 'Wendy's Wish') Zones 9-11

  • Blooms spring to fall
  • 48 inches tall and 36 inches wide in bloom
  • Full sun to partial shade
  • Average watering; appreciates ample moisture
  • Southeastern hummingbird garden success


Azure Hybrid Sage (Salvia microphylla 'Mesa Azure') Zones 7-9

  • Blooms spring to fall
  • 24 inches tall and 18 inches wide in bloom
  • Full sun to partial shade
  • Average watering
  • Southeastern hummingbird garden success

Midnight Mexican Bush Sage (Salvia leucantha 'Midnight') Zones 8-11

  • Blooms summer to fall
  • 48 inches tall and 36 inches wide in bloom
  • Full sun
  • Drought resistant; appreciates average watering
  • Southeastern hummingbird garden success

Limelight Mexican Sage (Salvia mexicana 'Limelight') Zones 7-9

  • Blooms in fall
  • 60 inches tall and 24 inches wide in bloom
  • Full sun to partial shade
  • Drought resistant; appreciates average watering
  • Southeastern hummingbird garden success

Raspberry Truffle Sage (Salvia x 'Raspberry Truffle') Zones 7-9

  • Blooms spring, fall and winter
  • 48 inches tall and 36 inches wide in bloom
  • Full sun
  • Average watering


Golden Girl Sage (Salvia 'Golden Girl') Zones 7-9

  • Blooms spring to fall
  • 30 inches tall and 24 inches wide in bloom
  • Full sun to partial shade
  • Drought resistant; appreciates average watering

More Buzz at FBTS

If you have questions about hummingbirds and hummingbird gardening in a humid climate, Nancy L. Newfield can be reached by email at her Louisiana Hummingbirds website. 

Concerning hummingbird plants for all parts of the nation, we hummingbird lovers at FBTS are always glad to share what we know. You'll find lots of useful hummingbird information in the Hummingbirds in the Garden, Sage Words about Wildlife and Sage Experts categories of our Everything Salvias Blog. If you have any questions concerning plants in our online catalog, please call or send us an email. We'll give you a buzz at hummingbird speed.

Edited Dec 21, 2020 04:00 PM
Alicia Rudnicki for FBTS


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