For the Birds Radio Program: Mystery Hummingbird

Original Air Date: Dec. 19, 1994 (estimated date)

A possible Calliope Hummingbird was in the Twin Cities this month! What on earth? (Year and month are correct.)

Audio missing


In the Northland, December is a month when we expect to see eagles, owls, and northern finches, not hummingbirds. And in the Midwest, the only hummer we normally see is the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. There are several records of Rufous Hummingbirds and a couple of records of Anna’s Hummingbird in both Minnesota and Wisconsin, and an unbelievable two records of Magnificent Hummingbirds in Minnesota, both in July 1987, but other species are simply not found in these parts. So when a little hummer that was another species altogether turned up in south Minneapolis a few weeks ago, birders from throughout the state descended in droves.

The tiny creature showed up in a backyard in mid-November, and the people living there, a nice, normal family of non-birdwatchers, were completely taken aback to find it. Afraid of keeping it north when it should be migrating, they didn’t set out sugar water, but the little bird stuck it out in their yard anyway.

They took pity on it after the Thanksgiving weekend blizzard and set out a hummingbird feeder. December third, hundreds of birders converging on Minneapolis for the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union’s annual paper session drove over to the house to check it out.

Finding the bird was easy. You just stood in the alley behind the house and within minutes, a cold, unhappy looking hummingbird flew in to the hummingbird feeder. Identifying it was the tricky part. It was green-backed like a Ruby-throat or Anna’s, but the buffy, almost rusty flanks and white spots on the outer tail feathers ruled out all the common possibilities. It was an immature male, making the identification even trickier. The only possibilities were two species that summer in the Rocky Mountains and winter in Central America, either a Broad-tailed or a Calliope Hummingbird. There is a 3/4 inch difference in size between the two species, which amounts to 20 percent of the total length, but fluffed out against the cold with no other hummingbirds within a thousand miles with which to compare it, size was hardly a useful characteristic.

Birders continued to debate the ID through December 5, when people made arrangements to capture the bird and fly it south. But within a few hours of capture, it died. A hummingbird’s heart flutters over 1500 beats per minute, and this poor stressed-out, hypothermic mite, with nothing to eat but sugar water for so many days, didn’t survive the ordeal.

Now a bird in the hand is supposedly easier to identify than one shivering in a bush, but this one is still confusing ornithologists. The current consensus is that it’s either an immature male Calliope Hummingbird or a hybrid. Whether that proves to be true or it ends up being a Broad-tail, it’s a new state record for Minnesota, and augments the lists of a great many birders. Usually this is cause for jubilation, but I always feel more sad than triumphant when a bird turns up so far from where it belongs.

Most of the time a rarity disappears without a trace and we try to believe it found its way home. Is it any sadder when we know for certain a sad outcome than when we delude ourselves that it might possibly have flown thousands of miles to get back on course during a time of year when a proper migration diet is simply not available?

Anyway, whatever this little hummingbird’s identity proves to be, it will grace books of Minnesota ornithology for centuries to come, as it lies, not quite in state, stuffed, in a museum drawer.