Nature abounds with mysteries. Last Friday we went sleuthing in the Lodi area to answer backyard birders’ most perplexing puzzle: “What kind of hummingbird is that?”

Some amazing hummingbird facts:

Some humans “speak with forked tongues” (lie), usually after saying the words “If elected,” but hummingbirds eat with forked tongues. I had always thought their tongues were hollow, like soda straws, but hummers’ tongues are shaped like the letter “T.” The two horizontal parts are folded together except when inserted in a flower’s pistil, when they spread apart so more nectar adheres to them. There is no sucking involved — again in contrast to forked-tongued humans. P.S., they also eat bugs.  

All hummer species are native only to the Americas. Four of them are commonly found in coastal California: the black-chinned, Allen’s, Anna’s and Rufous (whom the others call “Rufous the Doofus,” or so I imagine). The hummers also have weird Latin names, such as Archilochus alexandri for the black-chinned hummer. The two hummingbird experts who led our expedition into the wilds of Heritage Oaks Vineyard (which explains why I went) used Latin frequently, while we novices nodded our heads like hummingbirds dipping into feeders, pretending to understand. 

Putting hummingbird feeders outdoors does not interrupt the birds’ migration schedules, which are hard-wired into their tiny brains. A 4-to-1 mixture of water and white sugar is the only human-made food they can live on.  Hummer populations are declining due to our conversion of fields to condos, so offering some artificial nectar is the least we can do to atone. 

The Lodi excursion illustrated that scientific advances aren’t a “march” straight ahead, but a meandering around a subject. The classification system of animals and plants was based on carefully observing the similarities and differences among living things. It has worked pretty well for us for a couple of centuries.

Problem is, appearances can be deceiving. DNA testing has made hummingbird classification more precise, with an entire genus disappearing, presumably without the birds noticing. Our two-bird sensei emphasized, while flashing through hundreds of bird photos, telltale distinctions between an adult female Anna’s and an immature male Allen’s, such as the latter’s habit of “flipping the bird” with one of its 10 primary wing feathers. (OK, I made that up.) 

My career as a hummingbirdologist was short-lived. I have reverted to using less Latin identifiers, such as “It’s that green one.” is now less bird-minded, but still as bird-brained. On Twitter: @louiecastoria

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