For the Birds Radio Program: Calvin Trillin's Hummingbirds: A Weighty Matter

Original Air Date: Aug. 28, 1987

How do you weigh a hummingbird? Calvin Trillin’s guess wins points for good humor.

Audio missing


A Weighty Matter

(Recording of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird)

Calvin Trillin, the New Yorker humorist, writes a column for The Nation, which now runs in the Sunday Minneapolis Star and Tribune. I’m a fan of Mr. Trillin’s–he’s always interesting and usually funny–but since he hardly ever writes about birds, he doesn’t provide much grist for my mill. That is, until last week, when he hit the bullseye with a column about hummingbirds, inspired by an ornithologist on a Canadian radio program mentioning that a hummingbird weighs as much as a quarter.

The immediate question for a birder was: which hummingbird? There are at least 319 species, all in the New World. 21 species enter the U.S., mostly in the southwest. Two species are found in Wisconsin and Minnesota–the common Ruby-throated Hummingbird and the much rarer Rufous Hummingbird, a western bird. Since this program was on Canadian radio, the reference was probably to one of these, or to 2 other western species that get as far north as Canada.

But before I could go any further, I had to call the good old reference department at the Duluth Public Library–it took them only a few minutes to find out how much a quarter weighs. According to the Standard Catalog for World Coins, an American quarter weighs 5.67 grams; a Canadian one weighs 5.8319 grams. That’s over twice the weight of our Ruby-throated Hummingbird, which usually weighs in at 2.6 grams–hardly more than a penny. When a ruby-throat is fattening up for migration, it can balloon to 4.5 grams–but that’s still less than a quarter. It’s even less than a nickel, which weighs 5 grams. And no other Canadian species weighs more. The smallest hummingbird in the world, the Cuban Bee Hummingbird, weighs less than 2 grams–that’s substantially lighter than a dime. The way ornithologists are paid, my guess is that Mr. Trillin’s hummingbird expert had handled more live hummingbirds than he had quarters.

Mr. Trillin’s wife was concerned about how they weigh a hummingbird in the first place. He told her, “You’ve seen those TV documentaries where they shoot a dart into a panda to put him asleep long enough to outfit him with a radio transmitter. Well, this is the same sort of thing, except that the dart is exceedingly small, about half the size of a common straight pin. It’s surprisingly easy to hit a hummingbird with a tiny dart. The difficult part is slapping him gently on the cheeks to bring him around after the weighing. That takes a delicate touch indeed.” Mr. Trillin confessed that he “hadn’t actually heard that on the CBC, but it sounded like something you might hear on the CBC, which is almost as good.”

What you’d hear on American radio–at least on this program–is that scientists get hummingbird weights from dead birds found under lighthouses and picture windows. Not even licensed banders are allowed to trap hummingbirds in the U.S. or Canada without a special permit. These birds, which bravely face the fiercest hurricanes each fall as they migrate non-stop across the Gulf of Mexico, easily die of fright when confronted with that most dreadful specter–an ornithologist.

(Recording of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”