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My Column: Hurricane Hummingbirds

My column for The Record today is about hummingbirds and hurricanes -- with the observations of  Victor M. Ortega-Jimenez, who did his post-doctoral research on the effects of precipitation on hummingbird flight.

(He also took the photo above at the Berkeley Flight Lab in California. Thanks, Dr. Ortega-Jimenez!)

(I noticed, by the way,  that I had more birds at my feeders in the hurricane this month than I did in Sunday's drizzle; photo below. Go figure.)


By Jim Wright

Special to The Record

   When Hurricane Isaias hit New Jersey with high winds and heavy rains a couple of weeks ago, I tried a little experiment to see if birds would use my feeders during the storm.

    Part of the motive was selfish. I was stuck at home because of the weather and the quarantine, so why not look out the living-room window and see which birds -- if any -- showed up for a bite or a sip in Mother Nature’s worst weather?

   As the advance wave of the hurricane rolled in, I filled the hummingbird feeder with fresh sugar water, hung a new chunk of suet, and threw a few scoops of Supreme Blend into the trusty tray feeder.  And then I took my ringside seat.

    The first birds to arrive with the heavy rain were several tufted titmice at the seed feeder, followed by a downy woodpecker pounding away at the suet.

    Then came two waterlogged blue jays, feeding a very loud juvenile. Next were four black-capped chickadees-- the most I have seen at the feeder all year.

     But the real surprise was the repeated visits by at least two ruby-throated hummingbirds to the nectar feeder. These hummingbirds, which weigh about as much as a penny, are remarkable athletes that migrate hundreds of miles across the Gulf of Mexico. But flying in a hurricane? Really?

     I decided to ask an expert about what was going on. Who better than Victor M. Ortega-Jimenez, who did his post-doctoral research on the effects of precipitation on hummingbird flight?

    “I was surprised that hummingbirds can effectively shake off the water attached to their bodies, even in mid-air,” said Ortega-Jimenez, who studied at the Berkeley Flight Lab in California.  “And at acceleration rates that can make humans blackout!” 

   Ortega-Jimenez, who published a paper yesterday on how small animal fliers, including hummingbirds, fly through waterfalls, also showed that hummingbirds managed to fly in heavy rain.

   But hurricanes? 

   “In experiments using a wind tunnel, hummingbirds have the ability to fly in highly turbulent winds with an average speed of roughly 12 meters per second [27 mph],” Ortega-Jimenez said. “However, flying in turbulence increases their metabolic costs up to 25 percent. Remarkably, they showed little effects on flight control and stability.”

   In short, these little fliers can handle just about anything. Sometimes they just have to work harder.

   I also asked the researcher how these hummingbirds can fly over the Gulf of Mexico.

   “It’s still an open question,’ Ortega-Jimenez replied. “But I think their bauplan [body plan] is totally designed to endure bad weather.”

   Who knew?

  For more information on Ortega-Jimenez’s hummingbird research, go to ornithopterus.com.