IamA hummingbird researcher. AMA!
Hi everyone, my name is Dr. Anne Houtman, and I’m an ornithologist whose research has focused on hummingbirds. I’m here to answer questions with help from Atlas Obscura.
My research has focused on the behavioral ecology of hummingbirds, focusing on sexual selection and male song. Hummingbirds are unique from other species in that some hummingbirds learn song, while others appear to lack this ability. My research focuses on how learned song in hummingbirds has evolved. (Fun fact: I once caught a hummingbird in flight out of the air with my bare hands.)
Additionally, I’ve conducted research on how best to teach science to non-scientists. I’ve also written two textbooks: I’m the first author of an environmental science textbook and a non-majors biology textbook. I was born in Kansas, and I moved to Hawaii at age 11. My first job when I was 16 was working at Hawaii’s Sea Life Park with baby sea lions and dolphins. I’m currently the Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.
I’m looking forward to answering your questions!
EDIT: Heading out to a meeting now! Thanks for all the questions! Now that I’m an administrator I don’t get to talk about birds or my books very often, so this was so much fun for me!
I have seen and held many baby hummingbirds. They are sooooo tiny, it’s ridiculous. The nests are like little teacups, made of lichens and spiderwebs. They always lay two eggs. After they hatch and grow bigger, the nest begins to stretch and stretch (thanks to the spider webs) and by the time the chicks fledge, it is literally bursting apart.
Hi! Scrolling through all of these are fascinating, thank you! My question: do you ever research the cultural history of Hummingbirds? Like, myths surrounding hummingbirds, or how hummingbirds are used in literature, as symbols, etc? How would one start doing that kind of research? Thanks!
No, I haven’t done that - I don’t have the training or experience for that kind of research. You should do it!! I always start any new research project at Wikipedia and Google, then head for the primary literature from there. Let me know if you do that!
What are the best plants for hummingbirds?
Hummingbirds are attracted to brightly colored, tubular flowers that hold lots of nectar.
How do you record, track, and qualify hummingbird song? Do you have shorthand and nicknames for different songs/sets of 'notes'/sounds, and is any of the terminology used related to an understanding of Music Theory?
Wow, what an interesting question!! We have very high-tech equipment for recording hummingbird songs. My students have been asked if they are FBI agents! Before we had tools for digital analysis of hummingbird song, which has made life much simpler for bird researchers, people would try to document songs by writing them in musical format and/or playing them on an instrument. I will say that my students who are musically inclined have been very perceptive in the field, in terms of identifying individuals and noting changes in song. Every student has a unique strength!
What happens to the hummingbirds that can’t learn song? How do they communicate?
I have never met a hummingbird that can’t learn song. Only the males sing, btw. They wouldn’t be able to attract a mate if they didn’t sing the correct kind of song.
Edit: Just realized you are asking about the hummingbird species that don’t learn song! Some species know the correct song from the time they are born - they don’t need to learn it.
What was the most surprising thing you learned in your research on how to teach science to non-scientists?
Great question!!! This wasn’t my finding, but it does not appear to be true that students learn better in small classes. Go figure. In terms of my research (and experience) - I started out my career thinking that my job as a professor was to create more biologists like me, but I gradually came to realize that the most important teaching I do is teaching nonmajors. There are three reasons for this. First, even in my majors classes, the majority of my students will not go on to be scientists. The reality is that, quantitatively, I am mainly teaching nonscientists. Second, the last time many students will spend time in a room with a scientist or in a laboratory is in my nonmajors biology class. So every single moment of that time is precious and my last chance to help them understand science. When I design a class, I always ask myself “What if our next senator or president is in the class? What do I want her to know?” Finally, occasionally in a nonmajors class – if we do things right - we manage to convince a student who has never imagined themselves as a scientist that in fact science is the right career for them. In my own life, those students have often been women, or from an under-represented minority, or from a working class background. For the United States to continue to be the land of opportunity, as well as a world leader in science, we need the next generation of scientists to be more diverse, to look like…America. A great nonmajors class, paradoxically, can contribute to that goal.
What’s the craziest or most asshole-like thing you’ve seen a hummingbird do to a human, insect or animal?
Outside my office at Cal State Fullerton, we found two hummingbirds who had stabbed each other with their beaks and died that way. Kind of like Romeo and Juliet, but the opposite. That seems pretty crazy to me. Lots of experiences of them singing or diving at inappropriate species, like humans, cats, butterflies. Testosterone poisoning is how I think of it.
This is fascinating! What initially piqued your interest in hummingbirds to begin researching them?
Two things: first, we know so much about songbird song (duh) but relatively little about hummingbird song. In fact, people are often surprised to hear (ha!) that hummingbirds sing. Second is that they are a great species to work with, if you really want to work with students. Hummingbirds are highly visible, they vocalize almost continuously during their extensive breeding season, and the research methods we use are technically straightforward and inexpensive to support, and thus work well for master’s and undergraduate research projects.
I love Hummingbirds... I never even thought this could be a potential job possibility. This is so cool to me. So with that in mind: How does one go about becoming a biologist / ornithologist who specializes in Hummingbirds? What are the prerequisites and requirements for such a field? Where do you even work?!
Hm, so you need to get a bachelor’s degree in biology or a related field (like environmental science, or wildlife biology, or something). You can sometimes get a job directly after that with a federal or state agency, but more and more you need to earn a master’s degree first. If you want to be a professor, where you do research as part of your job teaching college/university, you will need to earn a doctorate first. Many years being in school and not making money, so you want to make sure you really love what you are doing before making that kind of commitment! But it is an amazing way to make a living!
I understand hummingbirds have large brains. Can they identify people as pets do?
I’m not sure I would say that hummingbirds have large brains. Look at the size of their heads - it would be hard to fit much brain in that!
Having said that, great question about whether they can identify people! I don’t know if they can, although the CAN identify other hummingbirds. We know that by watching how they respond to songs of known and unknown males. Most birds are less aggressive toward strangers than neighbors, but hummingbirds are more aggressive toward their neighbors.
If you were going to be reincarnated as any animal, would you choose a hummingbird? What are the best and worst parts of being a hummingbird in your opinion?
I wouldn’t choose a small bird, because they don’t usually live very long! Best part: live in a warm, sunny place and drink from flowers. Worst part: fighting all the time! (They are very aggressive.)
My choice for an animal to be reincarnated as: a dolphin, or whale, or maybe an otter. They have lots of friends and swim all day and eat sushi (well, raw seafood anyway).
I noticed the aggressive bit when I got to watch them daily! Is there any really specific reason they're so aggressive? Why so aggressive for such a small birb? (I assume it's territory based, but I'm intrigued!)
I’m not sure, but I sometimes wonder if they are so aggressive because they are so much smaller than other birds that compete with them for insects. That is also likely the reason they sing at such a high pitch (my husband can’t even hear some hummingbird species sing!) PS females at feeders are as aggressive as males on territories, interestingly...
Do many of them refuse to answer the questionnaire?
In the UK you walk down a high Street and researchers ambush you to answer market research questionnaires. There's always a feeling of relief when the person in front of you gets caught. Your post just cooked up an image of you with a clip board and humming birds trying to ignore you! Serious question though, where is the best and most accessible place to see them in the wild?
I’m sorry to report that there are no hummingbirds in the UK or Europe. You will need to come visit us in North America (or South America) to see them!
Hi! This is so exciting, thank you for doing this :) What's your favourite story from your time working with hummingbirds?
You are most welcome. Hm, favourite story… Well, it really is heaven working out in the desert and along the California coast with my research students, so it’s all good. OK, here is a good story. We had a film crew from BBC at our field station and they wanted to film a dead hummingbird, because we had explained that small birds often die from starvation/cold overnight. I explained you almost never find dead birds, because something will eat them or they are so tiny they dry up and blow away. BUT I had a student (Erin Chin) who was amazing at finding hummingbird nests, and she found a male for them the next day, dead, hanging upside down from a branch like a bat. Amazing!
Oh NOOOOOOOO! I am very sorry about the dead hummingbird. Follow up question that is only briefly related: Will hummingbirds survive the colder winters that we seem to be getting these days (based on nothing but my own observations)? Do you see the population dropping?
Different hummingbird species are in better or worse condition. The main issue for California hummingbirds is loss of habitat, because everyone wants to live in coastal sage scrub. This is a worldwide problem - coastal environments are rare and becoming increasingly fragmented because humans like to live there. Increasing droughts due to climate change are also, of course, a problem for a species that relies on nectar and insects to survive and raise chicks. And finally, many bird species are having trouble because their migration and reproduction is tied to day length, but they feed on plants and insects whose annual cycles are changing due to changes in temperature and precipitation, again due to climate change. So they are not aligned as well as they were before.
We've got this one hummingbird that always comes back to our feeder year after year, and he (i think it's a male) is the only one we've seen that will sit to take a drink. It's really cool being able to see a hummingbird not flying, but is there any particular reason why he would choose to sit unlike all our other visitors?
My guess, from my general knowledge of birds and animal behavior, is that he feels confident that he could fight off any other hummingbirds that came by. The ones that don’t land are more nervous/less confident. Fun fact: hummingbirds are in the bird order Apodiformes, which translates as “no feet”. Swifts are in it too. They actually have feet, they are just small and neither swifts nor hummingbirds perch very often - they are mainly seen in flight.
What's something that we as non-experts should consider when witnessing a hummingbird on our garden (or anywhere else)?
I would say that, as with any wild animal, they are living on a tightwire of getting enough to eat and not being preyed on. So try not to disturb them as they go about their business. OH ALSO, anyone who loves birds should NEVER allow their cat outside. Bird density and diversity decreases precipitously wherever there are “outdoor” cats, including neutered feral cats/cat colonies. I know that is hard to hear; it took me a few years to get there myself.
Can you keep a hummingbird? Or is it a legal tender?
No, although people have. It is illegal to keep (dead or alive!) migratory birds.
do hummingbirds migrate?
Yes they do! I believe the rufous hummingbird makes the longest migration in the world, if you consider it in terms of number of body lengths flown. Which is only fair, right?
Why hummingbirds? Why not any of the other kinds?
Before I switched my research to hummingbirds, I studied zebra finches, white-throated sparrows, house sparrows (aka English sparrows), juncoes, cardinals (that went badly…)...probably some other species too, but drawing a blank right now. Now I raise chickens and one turkey and LOVE watching them - they behave just like other birds!
Why did the cardinals go badly?
OK. When I was a young professor in Illinois, I needed to choose a study species and decided the northern Cardinal would work well. Bright colored males & monogamous (I was studying extra-pair copulations), abundant… all good for doing research with undergraduates. But they ended up being very challenging to work with - abandoned nests easily, hard to catch. The clincher was when I held them in “bander’s grip” to put leg bands on them for individual ID, they were able to swivel their heads around and clamp onto my finger with their large, seed-cracking beaks. I had bruises. Switched to house sparrows the next field season. The punchline: one day we were ambling across campus, young son in stroller pushed by his dad, 3 yo daughter holding my hand, feeling idyllic. Daughter stops, points up into a tree and says “look, it’s a fucking cardinal!”. Her father just looked at me, since it was clear where she’d heard that.
I once saw a Ruby throated hummingbird in NJ during the summer. Is it common for them to make it that far north? Also would a hummingbird instinctively know to return south when the weather got colder?
New Jersey isn’t out of the ordinary for hummingbirds, they make it into Canada and even Alaska. The signal for them to head south at the end of summer (and north in spring) is daylight, not temperature. Hooray for hummingbirds in Jersey!
I’ve always been curious about the process of writing a textbook. How long does that take? What percentage of the work is research vs. actually writing?
Oh gosh, it takes FOREVER. I started working on my biology textbook in 2003 and it finally published (I was working on other things in between) in 2014. It’s called Biology Now, but I sometimes joked that it would be better named Biology...Eventually. Our book is different, because each chapter is a current science story and then we embed the science in it, so there is more research than you would typically find in a textbook. I work with an AMAZING science writer, Megan Scudellari, who does a lot of that. Having said that, one of the best things about writing a textbook vs. other kinds of writing is that you are part of a team. We have another professor, Cindy Malone of CSUN, a host of different kinds of editors, led by Betsy Twitchell, and incredible artists, photographers etc. We wouldn’t need cover art if we gave authorship to everyone who makes the book so great; the cover would be full of their names!
PS second edition - much faster! Eight months I think.
Wow, you managed to catch a hummingbird mid flight? Must be some kung fu master.
So, what are some things us general plebs should know that are actually harmful to hummingbirds? So that we stop doing it.
I rarely see hummingbirds nowadays, wonder where they all went.
EDIT: Should clarify my geography, SE Asia. I remember hummingbirds are a lot more common about 15-20 years ago.
Any friend of hummingbirds is a friend of mine! I’ve actually caught many birds in flight. Although now I mainly catch (and watch) chickens, since we have moved to Indiana. Re anything not to do - better not to poke around any bird’s nest, although it is not true that they will automatically abandon the chicks if you do. And be sure to change the sugar water in your feeder regularly, otherwise it could make them sick. Or maybe drunk. Regardless, you don’t want to be around a drunk hummingbird - remember they are very aggressive even when sober!
I think the last time i saw a hummingbird was a few years back. It is like they are dying off here. I haven't read any local forestry report about it though. Some of the countries here lump wildlife/eco research under forestry department.
A world without hummingbirds is like a world without sunshine. Maybe you could plant some flowers they would like, or put out a feeder?
Have you ever seen a baby hummingbird?? What are hummingbird nests like?
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