The following was posted to Humnet on February 8, 2002 by Dennis Demcheck.

The January 5, 2002 Baton Rouge Christmas Bird Count recorded 151 hummingbirds from 8 species. In part 1 of The Hummingburbs, I discussed the procedures were used to find and record those 151 birds. Now in Part 2, I will attempt to explain the history of The Hummingburbs. This was a much bigger task than I anticipated. The story kept going farther back in time. I enlisted the help of Miriam Davey as a co-writer to help me get the facts and chronology straight.

The Late 70s -- Background and Origins

The origin of the specialized hummingbird parties known as The Hummingburbs goes back to the late 1970s. Then, there was just Nancy Newfield. This was the era when Nancy was The Voice in the Wilderness, even though the wilderness was suburbia. People simply did not believe her when she stated she had as many as 7 western hummers, including Black-chinned, in her Metairie, La. yard in winter. Sight-ID was not considered reliable for identifying any wintering hummingbird. Fieldmarks for wintering hummingbirds didn't exist. In-hand examination was considered the only way to get an ID. Nancy was granted a bander's permit in July 1979, and then was able to prove that the differences she saw were real and that most female Archilochus were identifiable in the field.

Nowadays, we all know that field-identifying wintering hummers is very difficult, and often impossible. But that is a big change from the belief that Nobody, and then Nobody with the Possible Exception of Nancy Newfield, could field-ID wintering hummers, ever.

In the late 70s if New Orleans had 3 or 4 hummingbirds recorded on the CBC it was considered a very big deal. Baton Rouge had zero, at least that anybody knew about. From 1978-80 Miriam and Rex Davey lived in New Orleans and met Nancy. They became birding buddies. When Miriam and Rex moved to Baton Rouge Nancy encouraged them to put up feeders and plant for wintering hummers, even though the odds of success that far away from New Orleans were considered by everyone except Nancy to be slim-and-none. In 1982 Miriam got a Rufous at her new Baton Rouge home, and there was much rejoicing.

The early 80s -- Frustration and Energy

In the early 80s the first pieces of the hummingburbs puzzle began to come together. Now Paul McKenzie enters the picture. He was a student at LSU in forestries, but he hung around the LSU Museum of Natural Science a lot. He was a high-energy guy, I'm told. During this era ace birders were not keen on examining suburbia for the Baton Rouge CBC. They preferred to hit remnant woods, lakes, and undisturbed areas. There were a few scattered times when Paul badgered CBC'ers to look at a feeder in their area for 5 minutes to count hummers known to be present. Often they'd forget to check the feeder, or not list the bird since they couldn't ID it, so few records would be turned in. After the CBC Paul McKenzie would stomp around mad and burn up the phone lines to anyone who'd listen. Often, these listeners were Miriam, Steve and Cathy Hope (Humnetter Doris Hope's son and daughter-in-law) and then-LSU Museum student Mark Swan.

Early-to-mid 80s -- The Beginnings of a Plan

Paul McKenzie, fired up by Nancy's incredible but true claims of a Metairie yard filled with Black-chinned Hummingbirds, began his own hummingbird garden, and goaded Miriam, the Hopes, Barbara Guglielmo, Van Remsen, and other laid-back bird gardeners into what became fierce competition to see who could attract mo' and bettah' Hummahs. To spread the word, he even began a short-lived hummingbird club whose mailing list, condensed to scribbles on the back of an envelope, were the nucleus of today's CBC Humlist. He also pioneered the technique of calling ahead of the CBC and specifically targeting homes with wintering hummers. Paul worked hard on this for about 3 years. Nancy Newfield helped with countless telephone consultations, banding ahead of time and head-marking hummers so residents could easily tell one from another, and then banding any missed birds afterwards. As Nancy put it, "Of course, in the early days we just needed to worry about Ruby-throated vs. Black-chinned and the Selasphorus. Nobody ever expected that we would be able to get Allen's and Broad-tailed. Calliopes were just a fluke. And, Buff-bellieds were very exotic." This wasn't the logistical effort it would become in later years, as there were only about 10 people that even reported a bird's existence. It was an uphill battle just getting people, even birders, to put out winter feeders.

Thus, the mid-80s were the time when a small core or network of people planting for wintering hummers began to form.

The late 80s-early 90s -- The Hummingburbs Modern Version

Paul McKenzie graduated, became Dr. McKenzie and moved to Missouri. Miriam then took over the network. In the first few years the Hummingburbs consisted of Miriam, Nancy, and various other assistants banding on count day, plus a growing number of feederwatchers. Sometime in the late 80-early 90s the total number of hummers counted on the CBC hit 30-something. This was now becoming a big deal. The hummingburb people had to coordinate activities with the feederwatcher folks to ensure that there was no double-counting. Now database management became a real issue, rather than knowing personally the dozen or so folks who routinely hosted hummers.

Early-to-Mid 90s -- The Miriam Effect

In the 80s it was still standard operating procedure to band hummingbirds on count day. In the early 90s Miriam, Nancy, and CBC co-compilers began to change the procedure. Why not scope out known feeder sites weeks in advance, sight-ID as many as possible on count day, then band shortly afterward to confirm any unsure IDs? This way more houses could be covered, and the number or reported and counted birds began to rise rapidly.

In the mid-90s Miriam and the Hummingburbs (a good name for a rock band) are at full speed. She utilizes a well-defined count circle so she can figure out precisely those suburban yards that are inside or outside the count circle. She expands the network, giving lectures during the year, calling feederwatchers before count day, and working on before-and-after-count day IDs, aided by a number of volunteers (Joe Kleiman, Nancy Murrill, Suzanne Kennon, Barbara Guglielmo, Mark Swan, Scotty Knaus, visiting Paul McKenzie, the late O.J. Williams, Dave Patton, and Bill Fontenot). Museum graduate students and personnel also lent help over the years (Peter Scott, Ted Parker, Andy Kratter, Jeremy Kirkland, Mario Cohn-Haft, Curtis Marantz, Laurie Binford, Steve Cardiff, Donna Dittmann, and others) She maximized resources by having two or three roving CBC parties of dedicated hummer spotters, instead of just one banding party. Uncertain IDs or IDs possible only to genus were carefully noted, and slated for visits by Nancy or by the handful of others now able to discern most wintering hummers.

The early 90s began what has been called "The Miriam Effect". When I talked to Miriam about this, she emphasized that this was the era when Baton Rouge hummingbird interest really exploded, and the whole process should more properly be called The Newfield Effect, or The McKenzie Effect. Nancy had recently co-written the book Hummingbird Gardens, several newspaper articles has been published, and she was lecturing extensively. The subject was hot with gardening groups.

As Miriam emphasized that the she merely expanded the hummer-CBC system Paul McKenzie had begun, I realized that many people have contributed to the process that culminated in 151 hummers of 8 species recorded for the January 5th 2002 CBC, and that somebody should write it down.

The late 80s-early 90s are also approximately the time Van Remsen began to get involved as a gardener, CBC co-compiler, and sounding board for ideas. Also Steve Cardiff and Donna Dittmann began to be heavily involved. One day Donna and Miriam drove around neighborhoods in Baton Rouge trying to find houses with likely-looking gardens and hummingbird feeders.

Perhaps the best definition of The Miriam Effect is: The results obtained by using a combination of genuine interest, charm, and dedication to increase the number of people successfully attracting and hosting wintering hummingbirds.

Mid-to-Late 90s -- Some Stability

In approximately 1995 Laurie Binford arrives. Laurie was one of George Lowrey's PhD students, and he knew Van from Van's days as an aimless beach bum birder in California. Van encouraged Laurie to move to Louisiana after retirement. Hummingbirds were one of the reasons Laurie also began wintering in Louisiana. Around 1998-99 I enter the picture. The hummingburbs team is well-established. I didn't know how to identify any wintering hummers then (Sluggo says I still don't) but I volunteered to help Miriam handle phone calls, logistics, and the famous Humlist. The list numbered about 90 people then, with about 70 names that consistently and reliably reported birds. It's up to 140 now, including seed feederwatchers. As of 2002, about 100 homes in Baton Rouge have reported hummers.

As a volunteer I got more than I bargained for. Miriam was glad to turn over the logistics and database management. My main reward is that I get to talk to and visit the homes of many people hosting hummers. A side effect is that it becomes an obsession to count every bird. If Laurie discovers a hummer that has gone through the hummingburbs process uncounted, there is profound gloom over our "system breakdown". A new feature of the hummingburbs process is the mailout of a written form to all 140 people on the Humlist. The forms give us better data on not only those homes with hummers, but also on those folks trying and failing to host them (20% of homes with hummer feeders deployed in 2002).

So there you have it: A brief history of the Hummingburbs. Any errors, omissions, or distortions are my fault, and mine alone. It may not be brief for a Humnet post, but my attempt to summarize the efforts of dozens of people over almost 25 years ran slightly longer than intended.

Dennis Demcheck, with Miriam Davey Additional dates and background kindly supplied by Nancy Newfield February 2002

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