For the Birds Radio Program: Montana Calliope Hummingbird Disaster

Original Air Date: Feb. 7, 1997

An overzealous US Fish and Wildlife Service agent killed a hummingbird rather than allowing it to remain in a warm place for the winter.

Audio missing


Now that I’m on the Internet, I can easily keep abreast of the latest in bird controversies. One of the stories that had birders all aflutter the past couple of weeks started in Billings, Montana. It seems a Calliope Hummingbird—probably a young one from this year—didn’t migrate south in time, and was rescued by some people who brought it to the local Wild Birds Unlimited Store.

The owners realized it was against the law for unlicensed individuals to keep it, so they contacted a local rehabber, but she didn’t have the facilities to keep a hummer, so she in turn contacted a rehab center in, I believe, California. Meanwhile, the little hummer had the run of the store, and the store owners got feeding instructions from the California facility, since a diet of nothing but sugar water can’t sustain a hummer for long. Arrangements were made to transport the tiny bird to the rehab center, but it apparently wanted to stay right where it was, and refused to be captured in time to make the airplane flight. So the owners let it be, figuring the worst that could happen is that the little bird would stick around for the winter and they’d shoo it out when Calliope Hummingbirds returned to Billings.

But they figured wrong. For some reason, an over-zealous US Fish and Wildlife Service agent got wind of their technically illegal activities and raided their store. He tried to catch the bird but couldn’t, so he shooed it outside, right into the sub-zero temperatures. Between the fear of the chase and the shock of the frigid air, the little hummingbird keeled over dead. The agent claimed to be justified, because all he had done was to let nature had taken its course.

The law that protects native birds and keeps them wild rather than enslaved as pets or exploited as commerce is a good law. But the arrogance of that agent is mind-boggling. Obviously, some people who mean well do more harm than good taking care of wild birds, but these store owners had done their utmost to learn the best techniques for feeding and caring for their charge. They hadn’t publicized the presence of the bird in the store in any way and weren’t capitalizing on it. They had every intention of releasing the bird as soon as spring returned. They were being both knowledgeable and compassionate, but in this case it was illegal to be compassionate. So now there’s one fewer hummingbird in the world, and the Fish and Wildlife Service has alienated a great many people who had been among their strongest supporters.

Anyway, the bird net has been all abuzz about that situation, leading to a long debate about whether that hummingbird is better off dead than living in an unnatural situation, whether the agent did the right or the wrong thing, whether the letter of the law is more important than the intent of the law, and what the heck are people who want to follow both their conscience and the law and who have the expertise to aid a creature supposed to do if they find a hurt bird that will clearly die without their assistance. Me—l’d take my chances and help the bird. I might pretend that I was following Henry David Thoreau’s articulate essay on Civil Disobediance, but really, I’d be feeling more like Charles Dicken’s Mr. Bumble. He’s the guy in Oliver Twist who said, ‘·If the law supposes that, the law is a ass—a idiot.”