Frankenbirds: A True Story of Science and Immortality, or, How to Make Dead Animals Look Alive

by Sabrina Dahlgren

I’d like to first clarify that this is not a “how-to” manual for your creep-tastic Halloween needs. I’m all for phantasmagorical home decor but the average citizen should not be handling animal specimens. Numerous species are protected or their handling is regulated by state and federal authorities. If you don’t have the necessary permits and training please leave the dead stuff alone (or call us).


Order: Piciformes.

With that disclaimer in place, I’d like to boast that my necropsy (animal autopsy) skills have greatly improved in my time at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. As has my taxidermy technique – not a skill set I thought I’d be adding to my resume, but this place is nothing if not constantly surprising.


Order: Strigiformes.

Why is this done at all, you may ask? As a scientific institution, part of our job is to preserve a record of life on Earth, both for edification of the public (think the Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife and the Frensley/Graham Hall of African Wildlife) and for the maintenance of reference collections used in research (our study skin specimens stored off-site).

It may seem like an obvious assumption, but no one wants to store an untreated dead thing in their building, regardless of ventilation and air-conditioning. Dead things rot, rotten things smell bad and a stinky workplace makes for very unhappy employees. So unprocessed specimens are stored in a freezer until the time comes for someone like me to thaw it out and clean it up. The cleaned skin is either made into a display mount or into a study skin, as much data is gathered as possible, and all records and databases are updated to reflect the newest addition.



What a difference strategic feather placement can make! Juvenile Black-Crowned Night Heron. Nycticorax nycticorax.

So what kind of person does this for a living? Am I the modern, non-fiction equivalent of Victor Frankenstein? So glad you asked! Here’s the answer, in brief:

In presentation I lean more towards lab coat and nitrile gloves than I do mad-scientist hair and demented cackling.



The resemblance is uncanny.

My lab consists of a tiny room with two freezers, a small fridge, storage cabinets, a section of counter well-lit by under-cabinet lights, and a sink; not a condenser coil nor galvanic rod in sight.



A Tesla coil would add to the ambiance…

There is no Fritz or Igor to assist; the closest I come is Pandora or Spotify to pass the time. The best and most ironic song I listen to is The Vulture Song from Disney’s The Jungle Book because I am a ridiculous human being and a morbid sense of humor serves well when I do this work, especially in October.

Most of my tools are normal: scalpels, dissecting scissors, probes and pins. Grocery items are also used: cotton balls, Q-tips, hydrogen peroxide, borax, Dawn dish soap, and an impressive amount of paper towels. Some of my tools are a bit unorthodox. Gardening shears have become one my most useful tools. Toothbrushes have become specimen dinglehoppers. You don’t even want to know what I use a teaspoon for. (Hint: It’s a fat scraper. Enjoy that bit of TMI.)


Hair dryer + toothbrush = bird salon.


Regarding the actual preparation:

  • Documentation is key – keep a written record of all observations and data that may have accompanied the specimen. Take pictures for reference. Or just because.
  • Record external data (weight, visible trauma, general condition, etc.).
  • Skin the specimen. You’ll end up with bone only in the lower legs and feet, wing extremities, and the cranium; organs, muscle, and adipose (fat) should be removed.
  • Clean the skin as thoroughly as possible – cleanliness equals longevity and that’s the big goal.
  • Clean the feathers and the exterior of the specimen as needed.
  • Fill the eye sockets with cotton  for a study skin and glass eyes for a mount.
  • Reinforce the length of the body with a dowel, then add in stuffing to re-form the body cavity. If you’re preparing a mount, add wire armature inside first so that it will hold a pose, then stuff.
  • Stitch up any incisions or tears in the skin and brush the feathers back into place.
  • Secure the specimen on a foam board and allow to dry for one to three weeks, depending on the size and condition of the specimen.

Unlike Doctor Frankenstein, I am happy to report that I do not galvanize specimens. The only electricity I use is restricted to the lights and the hair dryer, not for reanimating the bird.



…it better not be alive.

Why is any of this important? Simple. Scientists like data. Scientists like data even more if there are visual references available. If those reference materials preserve individual variations among species, observations and inferences can be made concerning species and larger taxa of organisms. Our collection is, essentially, a 3-D reference library that will serve future generations.

And that’s pretty amazing, if you think about it.

So there you have it: the key components of a specimen preparation specialist.

Scientific background + morbid curiosity + Disney references + off-color humor = Sabrina.


This is an ex-parrot.

And now I’m off to calculate the air speed velocity of an unladen European Swallow (Hirundo rustica).

P.S. Someone has already done the math, and it is beautiful.


…and this is a gratuitous Monty Python reference.

Editor’s Note: Sabrina Dahlgren is a Curatorial Assistant at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, providing help in tracking and maintaining existing and incoming collections to be installed as exhibits or stored for future exposition.


Hey, Texas! Get outside and visit your wild neighbors.

by Melissa Hudnall

Texans! Want to see exotic birds? Look out the window! Want to see 250,000 bats? Just go outside tonight and look up! As a wildlife teacher and outreach presenter for the museum, I’ve had a chance to talk with future generations about the amazing wildlife found in Texas. Usually students think you have to travel to exotic lands to see the really cool animals, and they’re shocked to hear about all of the incredible animals they’ve been living right next to in Texas.


Texas wildlife artifacts for the mobile classroom. Sahil Patel

That’s why I was excited to see the new HMNS at Sugar Land exhibit Treehouses: Look Who’s Living in the Trees!, because it makes these critters more accessible and feeds a natural curiosity that most children already seem to have about wildlife. After visiting this exhibit, young naturalists may start asking questions like, “Who made those track marks?” and exclaiming things like, “I know what that scat came from!”, which would make any parent’s heart swell with pride. Luckily, Texas is the perfect place to raise a young naturalist.

Look in our trees and under our bridges, and you might have a chance to see the only true flying mammal: bats! (Sorry, “flying” squirrels. Gliding doesn’t count.) Texas has tons of bats. In fact, we have so many that they are often picked up on radar used for weather reports.


Radar around the Bracken Cave in San Antonio shows a cloud of bats. Every blue dot is one in flight.

Everyone’s heard about the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin and the Bracken Bat Cave in San Antonio, but visit these locations in the winter and you might be disappointed to find they have migrated for the season. Drive just 15 minutes away from the Houston Museum of Natural Science, and you can see bats year round at Waugh Bridge. This bridge has roughly 250,000 Mexican free tailed bats who would love to meet you. Before you go, be sure to get them a Thank You card, because the bats under this one bridge in Houston eat up to 2.5 tons of insects each night!


This Mexican free-tailed bat might look cute and cuddly, but don’t pick them up like you see in this picture. Being mammals, they can carry rabies. Report any bats that you find on the ground in the day time or behaving strangely. They could be sick.

This is the perfect season to visit Waugh Bridge, as baby Mexican free tail bats test out their flying skills for the first time in early July. Just be sure to watch nearby towers for local birds of prey, such as red-tailed hawks and peregrine falcons, who are keeping a watchful eye on these bats as a source of food.


This peregrine falcon can reach speeds of 200 mph diving to catch its prey. This is a preserved specimen that travels to school with our Wildlife on Wheels program. Sahil Patel

In fact, Texas is a huge birding state. Individuals travel from all over the United States just to see the colorful migrants that pass through here, like Cerulean Warblers, Golden-cheeked Warblers, and Vermillion Flycatcher. Our Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife does a really nice job of highlighting some of the phenomenal birds that pay us a visit, for those of us (me) who do not have the patience for actual birding.


Vermillion Flycatcher

Another adorable, and partially arboreal animal is the North American Porcupine.


North American Porcupine

Looking for a kiss under the mistletoe this winter? This rodent is happy to oblige. Porcupines have been known to slowly amble up trees in search of mistletoe and pine needles when their preferred shrubbery is coated with snow. However, you may wish to rethink this close encounter, not only because of their dangerous defensive quills, but also because of their orange teeth.


The orange coloration of the North American porcupine’s incisors is due to the high amount of iron in their enamel.

These teeth are not orange due to poor hygiene, but rather because of iron found in the enamel. This iron oxidizes, forming a rusty color. It’s the same reason your blood is red.

So Texans, get your wildlife education with HMNS and HMNS Sugar Land, then go out and explore! After all, now that you know their home address, it would be rude to ignore your neighbors…

The Greatest Dinosaur-ologist Ever! The Reverend Edward Hitchcock.

Congregationalist Minister, Director of the Massachusetts Geological Survey, and First to Prove that Dinosaurs Had Feathers.

Part Two: U-boats and the Knuckle Decipherment.
(Read Part One Here)


Ferocious Flat-foots frighten second grader. A cartoon from Punch 1855 shows three dinosaurs restored at the Crystal Palace as big-shouldered and flat-footed. Supposedly kids were dragged kicking and screaming through the rows of monstrous sculptures.


Last year we left our dear friend, the Reverend Hitchcock, footprint sleuth of the 1830’3-50‘s, close to solving the riddle of the track-makers who stomped all over his Jurassic landscape. It wasn’t just a local New England puzzle. Similar tracks were excavated in Europe, Asia, Africa, Brazil — everywhere sediments were dated to the Jurassic, Late Triassic and Cretaceous. Hitch knew these beasts were bipeds, striding swiftly across muddy flats and sand bars, holding their heels high off the ground. Could they have been dinosaurians?

Absolutely, positively NOT! All the wise men of paleontology said Hitch’s tracks were totally, completely, astoundingly different from the imprints that would be made by a real-life dinosaur. All the textbooks and monographs said that dinos were flat-footed quadrupeds, and that’s the way they were restored as life-sized sculptures in the Crystal Palace Exhibition in a park just outside of London in the 1850’s. The 3-D dinos proudly displayed all the latest discoveries from the very best minds in Europe. This exhibition was the first “Jurassic Park” style extravaganza anywhere. Record crowds came and gawked at the Jurassic and Cretaceous behemoths. Three separate dino species were shown in giant models, plus assorted extinct crocs, ‘dactyls and sea-reptiles. All three dinos were shown as pentadactylus flat-footed monsters. All had forefeet as big as their hind feet and monstrously muscled shoulders. All the officially sanctioned dino-models on sale at the gift shoppe were five-fingered and five-toed too.

You could buy posters of the dinosaurian flat-foots and tiny miniatures cast in lead to act as paperweights or kids’ toys. Textbooks and encyclopedias were swayed by the exhibit and carried the same anatomical message. The Dinosauria as a group had legs like bears, with forepaws designed to excavate holes and bring down prey with one swipe of the claws. Tracks made by such beasts would, of course, display five digits fore and aft. The footprints had to leave big flat-footed sole marks too. Therefore, Hitchcock’s track-makers couldn’t be dinos, everyone knew that. Hitch’s favorite Jurassic critters had three main toes in the hind paw, arranged so the middle toe was the longest. Hind feet were gigantic, dwarfing the front paws in the few species who came down on all fours. Nothing could be more different from what science had discovered about dino paws.


Don’t be misled by the cryptic title. Here’s the best book on the Enigma Machine during World War II. Read this book to get the true story of Alan Turing and the cracking of the Nazi U-Boat code, as portrayed in the hit movie “The Imitation Game”

Triumph of the Congregationalist Mind: The digital decipherment. 
There was a puzzling disconnect between what the bone-scientists said and what Hitch and his fellow track-analysts were thinking. The bone guys saw dinosaurs as the commonest big land animals of the Jurassic, and the dinos were four-legged flat-foots, so they thought. Oddly, no one could find fossil footprints that matched the dino reconstructions. There were no giant flat-footed tracks in the rocks that contained giant dino skeletons. Odd, very odd.

Hitchcock ignored dinosaurs as they were reconstructed in Europe. He focused on bringing back to life the bipeds who had left behind the spectacular tracks in New England. To realize his life’s goal he needed to “see” the foot skeletons of his track-makers. But he had no fossilized pedal petrifications. No ankle bones; no toe bones, no fingers. He needed a miracle. He needed time-traveling x-ray vision that would reveal exactly where each and every bone fit in each and every toe. Congregationalists didn’t believe in miracles, not in the normal course of scientific work. What Hitchcock believed in was the power of the analytic mind and the beautiful regularity in the design of Nature. Here all his sole-searching paid off big. He already possessed the best set of diagrams of feet from living species, thanks to all the time spent chasing critters across muddy fields. Now he needed to sit down and search for the key that would unlock the skeletal.

Hitch succeeded. He cracked the code of the tracks. This decipherment must stand as one of the most heroic triumphs in the history of de-encryption, right next to the cracking of the U-boat signals sent by World War Two’s Enigma Machine. That Enigma Code story is told in the movie “The Imitation Game” with Benedict Cumberbatch playing the math genius Alan Turing. During the early days of the war, England was being starved by the U-boat offensive.Cargo was being sunk so fast that food, ammo, and guns were running short. The key to the U-boat success was the system of commands coming from German naval headquarters, sent in a new code that was diabolically complex. Each message was encrypted by the “Enigma Machine” that scrambled and double scrambled and triple scrambled every word.

Turing and his crew were told “The Enigma Machine is impregnable — no one can figure it out.” The crew took that as a challenge. They triumphed! (Note: it was more of a team effort than shown in the movie). Soon the Brits were reading the Nazi messages before the sub commanders did. U-boats were intercepted. Depth charges were dropped with precision. Salvos of hedgehog rockets were fired (Google “hedgehog”). The undersea threat was neutralized.

uboatMs. Emily Dickinson and a World War II U-boat.  The U-boat is at the left. To learn more: “Dickinson, Selected Poems and Commentary” by Helen Vendler, 2010, Harvard University Press.

I imagine Cumberbatch or maybe Anthony Hopkins playing Hitch in the movie “Dino-Code Breaker”. I see Hitch hunched over his drawing board surrounded by pickled feet of local newts, frogs, toads and a bandicoot paw sent from Captain Cook’s explorations. Angelina Jolie, plays poet Emily Dickinson, a frequent visitor to the Hitchcockian lab. She brings him a cup of tea and a translation of a French monograph on mole feet. The candles burn down to their pewter holders. Light flickers.

“I’ve GOT IT!” Hitch leaps up, waking up Ms. Dickinson who was snoring in a rocking chair. “See…’s all in the knuckles! All in the pads under the joints.” Emily stares at the diagrams for a few seconds….

“Yes, I see it too. The Law of Knuckles!!!! There’s a single pad under each joint where two toe bones meet.”


Knuckle pads on the tracks of a squatting Anomoepus.

Hitch’s breakthrough came via one very special track-maker whom he had named Ano-moe-pus, meaning “Uneven Paws”. This is the species that occasionally squatted down and put its forepaws on the mud. There were three big hind toes pointing forward, the longest in the center, and a little one pointing inward. It’s knuckle-pads were exceptionally well defined so Hitch could see exactly where bones came together at each joint.

The little toe had just one pad — that meant it had just two separate toe bones meeting at the pad. There was a sharp claw protruding from the pad. We paleo-podiatrists use a formula, a digital short-hand, to express the toe-bone design. We number toes from the inside to the outside, so the human innermost toe (we call it our “big toe”) would be Toe I. The pinkie toe is Toe V. The middle toe, of course, is Toe III. Using the formula, we can say that Anomoepus Digit I had 2 toe bones, or to be technical, two phalanges (phalanx is techno-speak for toe bone; plural phalanges).

The next toe in Anomoepus, Digit II, had two pads = three phalanges. Digit III, the longest, had three pads = four phalanges. Digit IV had four pads = five phalanges.

I imagine beads of perspiration trickling down the Reverend’s forehead as he wrote down the toe formula for Anomoepus. He sensed that he’s close to the answer for all his mystery tracks. When done with Anomoepus, he had a digital formula of 2-3-4-5. What about the pinkie toe, Digit V? No pads, no claw. No toe bones. Score the pinkie toe as a big 0. Hitch’s mystery beasts had no pinkie toe!! 

Final formula: 2,3,4,5,0. That was a huge advance in eliminating suspects. Mammals were out. Basic mammal formula is 2,3,3,3,3. Never did mammals have more than 3 phalanges on any toe, so therefore Hitchcock could ignore any suspect that was furry. (Don’t take my word for it. Take off your socks and count your toes. Now do the same for a relaxed kitty or ‘possum).


Jurassic Enigma Machine. Each pad is where two bones met….so filling in the foot skeleton was easy. Anomoepus has a formula of 2-3-4-5-0

No way the track-makers could be five ton bandicoots and kangaroos. Frogs? Nope. They never had more than four phalanges in the hind toes.

Lizards? They did have more than 3 phalanges in their middle digits, but they usually had a pinkie toe and so carried the formula 2,3,4,5,3. Hitch’s memory ran through all the paws he’s examined. Who had 2,3,4,5,0 Interesting. Alligators! Crocodiles! Closer than lizards but these formidable reptiles had wide, flat feet. And their inner toe was too big and pointed forward. And and…..crocs and gators didn’t go about on their tippy-toes and didn’t run on hind legs alone.

Hitch was very, very careful, testing and re-testing any theory of the crime scenes in the Jurassic rocks. He didn’t make a rush to digital judgement. I see him pushing back back on his desk chair, smiling. He looks over to Emily Dickinson and nods. She nods back.

“….birds…” They say in unison, in still soft voices. “The mystery monsters are birds.”

BRILLIANT!!!!! Totally awesome — that was the very first time the foot of an extinct beast was correctly envisioned, without a single bone. Problem? The biggest track-makers were over ten times bulkier than the heaviest ostrich, judging from the track size. Hard to believe? Well, no; there was precedent. Richard Owen, most famous paleontologist of the time, had announced fossil birds from New Zealand – the “Moas” — that were so huge they must have reached a ton or so. And the complete hind feet looked exactly like thick, heavy duty versions of Hitch’s Anomoepus. Moas had survived almost to the present day before the Maori hunters wiped them out. It could be that the moas were remnants of a world-wide Jurassic ground-bird dynasty.


Big bird, recently extinct. Hitchcock’s diagram of a moa foot and a moa exhibit at Moscow’s paleontological museum.

In 1858 Hitchcock’s careful, exquisite scrutiny of all things digital and phalangeal won praise from colleagues all over the scholarly globe. “He’s done it! He’s proven that a great Subclass of Flightless birds ruled the Jurassic.” There were only two lingering problems for Hitch’s theory:

Where were the wings? In the specimens with front paw prints, there were five short fingers. Bird wings have three long fingers (check the bucket of buffalo wings next football game). Hitch had to conclude that his Jurassic avians were flightless and used their stubby-fingered hands for digging, not flying.

The second problem was the tail. There were imprints in some Anomoepus specimens that might be from a long, thick tail. Birds today never have much of a tail and never with long bones and massive muscle. But maybe the Jurassic birds did have a mighty caudal appendage?

Both problems got solved by a skeleton dug in 1862, from a Jurassic quarry in Germany. A delicate raven-sized skeleton was a near perfect match for Hitchcock’s prediction of a Mystery Track-maker: the hind legs were long, especially in the ankle; the hind foot had a 2-3-4-5-0 layout; and the front paw had claws on the fingers. The rear end was wonderful; there was a long, strong, bony tail. Skeleton-wise, the little fellow was a fine example of a small Anomoepus.

Judging just from the leg bones, Hitch would’ve called the German specimen a bird. Ah…and here’s the delicious part. The skeleton came with skin, preserved as clear imprints on the limestone. The skin had feathers. Big flight feathers on the arms, wide feathers all along the tail. Yes indeed, this Anomoepus-like animal was clothed in feathers. The critter received the name Archaeopteryx.

Even more emphatic validation of Hitchcock came in 1866-68 when T. H. Huxley visited his chum John Phillips at Oxford University to talk over megalosaurs. As they pondered megalosaur legs, the two men exposed a case of osteological malpractice. Remember that Megalosaurus was a Jurassic meat-eating dino of large size. The bones were jumbled up by scavengers before burial, causing confusion — it wasn’t totally clear what belonged to the front end and what belonged to the rear. The English paleontologists in the 1820‘s and ‘30’s decided that the big, flat bone was a shoulder blade and the long skinny bone was a collar bone. That’s why the reconstruction showed immense forequarters and arms as fat as a bear’s.

Though most anatomists agreed, the restoration had serious front-end alignment issues. Professor John Phillips and T. H. Huxley showed that the giant shoulder bone of the Jurassic Megalosaurus was, in fact, a giant upper hip. And that hip that was very bird-like. The real megalosaur shoulder blade was narrow and bird-like. The real megalosaur hind feet weren’t five-toed and flat. They were arranged according to the pattern worked out by Hitchcock for Anomoepus. Properly restored, the megalosaur was a giant version of Anomoepus, just as Archaeopteryx was a mini-version. Megalosaurs had the exact body build necessary to make the biggish tracks studied by the Reverend.


Putting the hips where they belonged — painting by Luis Rey.


A hypsilophodont dino — feet matched Hitch’s Anomoepus.

More complete skeletons were dug for other dino families. The hypsilophodonts, smallish plant–eating dinos, had front and back feet that matched Hitch’s beloved Anomoepus tracks perfectly. At last it was clear that Hitchcock had been studying dinosaurs all along, starting in the mid 1830’s. He was dead right about the mystery monsters being built like birds and moving swiftly in flocks over the ground. All the European savants had been dead wrong when they stuck flat-footed paws and muscle-bound bear shoulders on their dinos.

Sadly Hitch had gone to his reward before the textbooks were rewritten. He received surprisingly weak posthumous praise. When I took paleo courses at Yale in the 1960‘s, Hitch got hardly a mention. Most dino-books even accused him of making a mistake when he called his track-makers “birds” instead of “dinosaurs”. No he didn’t make a mistake! He was right!! The track-makers were part of the avian family tree. All dinos were.

And therefore we dinosauro-philes of the 21st century must make amends. We doff our hats and give the credit where it’s due.

Mebbe…….we should write letters to Universal Studios and ask that they give a percentage of the billions made by the “Jurassic Park” franchise to the Massachusetts Geological Survey and to the Congregationalist Church of America.


* No one called him “Hitch” in public when he was alive. Still, he was so humble and accessible to students that I think, were he with us now, the nickname would have been ok.

p.s. Emily Dickinson’s (ahem) U-Boat poem

There’s no Book like an Unter-Boot
To drop us deep at Sea
Nor any Poetry as Perilous
As the Torpedoes’ stealthy speed —
This Traverse may the greatest take
And oppress them with the Toll
How deadly is the Chariot
That hunts the Human Soul.

Mean green flying machines: the hummingbirds are here!

Photo by JC Donaho.

Photo by JC Donaho.

What was that high pitched chirping and flash of iridescent green that just whizzed past at lightning speed? You just got buzzed by a hummingbird! The fall migration is passing through Houston, and these feisty little birds seem to be particularly abundant this year. Houston does not have (for the most part) any resident hummingbirds, but a few species pass through in spring and fall as they fly between their nesting grounds in the northern states and Canada, and their wintering ground in Central America.

The northward spring migration is much more diffuse than the fall event – you may hear a hummingbird or two in February or March, but they don’t linger. However, in late August through September and into early October, hummingbirds can be very evident in Houston. These marathon travellers will pass through our area for about 4 to 6 weeks, stocking up on fuel to take them over the Gulf of Mexico to their winter abode. They are particularly abundant on the Gulf Coast, where inclement weather can force them to stay put until a more opportune time comes to complete the migration. Rockport, Texas hosts a huge “Hummerbird Festival” every mid-September, with lots of talks on hummingbirds and other birds, butterflies, etc., and home tours to see gardens that are particularly full of hummingbirds. It’s over for this year, but put it on your calendar for future years and check it out!

Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Photo by JC Donaho

Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Photo by JC Donaho

Most hummers you see in Houston (and in Rockport) are Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. Males are a metallic green with white bellies, and are named for the patch of dark feathers on their throat that glows a brilliant, iridescent ruby red when the sun hits it just right. Females and immature males do not have the spectacular throat coloring, and are white underneath. Some young males may have a fleck or two of red on their throat.

Two other species are sometimes seen here – the Rufous Hummingbird and the Black-chinned Hummingbird. Juveniles and females of these species are a little hard to distinguish from Ruby-throated females and youngsters, but the males are distinctive. Rufous males are a bright bronze color, with an orangey red throat. Black-chinned males are green with a black throat, below which, in the right light, a brilliant violet band will flash.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Photo by JC Donaho

Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Photo by JC Donaho

Farther west, in the Big Bend area and west into New Mexico, Arizona, and California, hummingbird diversity is much higher. About 15 or so species are known from the USA, and most of these occur in the western states. For the apex of hummingbird diversity, head to the highlands of South America (e.g., Colombia, with about 140 species), where dozens of different species can be seen, some of them truly spectacular. Most of these are residents in the tropics and do not migrate.


Male and Female Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds, slow motion, August 2010 from Hummer Lover on Vimeo.

All hummingbirds behave similarly. Masters of speedy, controlled flight, they can hover in place, move backwards and forwards, dive and soar with incredible speed and precision. They can reach speeds of up to 60 mph, their wings whirring at 80 beats per second. Males in particular are territorial and aggressive, cheeping furiously as they drive off rivals from a good food source.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Photo by JC Donaho

Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Photo by JC Donaho

Hummingbirds’ main food is flower nectar, so they are important pollinators of certain species of plants. They especially seem to gravitate to red flowers, although other colors are visited. Their long thin beaks and even longer tongues allow them to reach inside floral tubes that are much too deep for most butterflies and bees. Since birds in general have a poorly developed sense of smell, flowers pollinated by hummingbirds typically have no scent.

Hummingbirds also eat small insects such as fruit flies and gnats, catching them on the wing or finding them inside the flowers they probe for nectar.

Bottle feeder with ant-guard

Bottle feeder with ant-guard

Because they love sweet fluids, it is easy to provide feeders for hummingbirds, and several designs are available. Hummingbird food is simple to make; you just need sugar and clean water. DO NOT use any other sweetener – including honey or other types of sugar –just your standard white table sugar. Use four parts water to one part sugar. Bring the water to a rolling boil, add in sugar and stir until it dissolves, then turn off the heat. Do not cook it too long or it will start to caramelize. Let the solution cool and you are ready to fill your feeders. Keep extra sugar solution in the refrigerator.

IMPORTANT! If you want to feed hummingbirds you must commit to regularly changing their sugar water food! Sugar water ferments and/or grows mold quickly, and when spoiled it can make hummingbirds sick. Since you will need to clean the feeders about every three days, do not fill them too full or you will waste a lot of sugar solution. Fill them from between ¼ to ½ full, at least until you see how fast the hummers empty them.

DO NOT add red food coloring, and avoid commercial solutions with food coloring. Coloring is not necessary, as most feeders have red parts built in to attract the hummers’ attention. Like spoiled sugar water, food coloring is bad for the hummingbirds’ health.

Every three days, even if your feeders are not empty, clean them thoroughly with hot water and refill them with fresh solution. At the end of the season you should sterilize the feeders either in the dishwasher or using a dilute bleach solution before drying and storing them until next year. I prefer to use glass feeders as these are easier to sterilize.


Perky Pet feeder

Perky Pet feeder

A few guidelines on feeder placement – hummingbirds are not at all shy, so you can put feeders near your house where you can enjoy watching their activity. I put one right outside my kitchen window, and hang others around my back yard, especially near trees or bushes where hummingbirds can perch between bouts at the feeder. If you put out more than one feeder (I recommend this!), don’t put them too close, and ideally place them out of sight of each other to avoid their being monopolized by one dominant male.

Salvia leucantha, aka Mexican Sage

Salvia leucantha, aka Mexican Sage

In a good season, you will have dozens of hummingbirds – and the more feeders, the more hummingbirds! I usually put out from 3 to 9 feeders, depending on activity. Of course, hummingbirds also visit flowers for nectar. The classic hummingbird flower is red with a long floral tube, but many others also bring them in. Some good choices are salvias (many varieties), hummingbird bush, coral vine, trumpet creeper, and russelia.

Salvia guaranitica, or Purple Majesty Sage

Salvia guaranitica, or Purple Majesty Sage

Of course, if you have outdoor cats, you should not put out hummingbird feeders or any other kind of bird feeder!

Did you know?

  • Hummingbirds are only found in the Western Hemisphere.
  • Hummingbirds’ jewel-like, glittering colors do not come from pigments, but result from the refraction of light hitting special structures on their feathers.
  • The Bee Hummingbird from Cuba, less than 2.5 inches long, is the world’s smallest bird.
  • The largest hummingbird is the Giant Hummingbird, from Patagonia, Chile. It is about the size of a cardinal, but only weighs half as much (about .65 ounces, or about 1/20th of a pound).
  • The longest hummingbird is the Black-tailed Trainbearer from Colombia. The male’s total length is about 10 inches, including its 6.5 inch tail!
  • The Sword-billed Hummingbird from Ecuador has a 4 inch long beak, almost as long as its body!
  • Check out the PBS Nature special on hummingbirds, “Magic in the Air,” for some amazing footage of these incredible creatures!