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Chicago mystery hummingbird a mystery no more


Offered as a follow-up to last week’s post on the mystery Selasphorus hummingbird that has, for the last few weeks, been turning the brains of Illinois birders to mush as they try to figure it out.

Last week, the hummingbird was captured, banded, and lessened of a few tail feathers for DNA sequencing, in a renewed attempt to discover its identity.  The feathers were taken to the Field Museum of Natural History where ornithologists hoped to be able to finally put a name to the bird to a very high degree of certainty.  Specifically, they hoped to answer the question of whether this was Illinois’s first Broad-tailed Hummingbird as originally identified, some sort of unknown hybrid, or something else entirely.

Chicago hummer
photo by Greg Neise, used with permission

And the verdict is finally in….

The bird is a Rufous Hummingbird.

Or, at least, it’s Rufous enough for jazz, as they say (see comments for clarification).

This surprising, given some of the plumage characteristics, result poses no shortage of questions as to whether or not juvenile Selasphorus hummingbirds are identifiable at all short of a full-on DNA workup, but Chicago birder (and ABA Blog contributor) Greg Neise discovered a potential field mark that may shed a little light on future confusing birds.  He was looking at the eyelashes.

As if juvenile Selasphorus identification couldn’t get more obscure, now we must pay close attention to hummingbird eye”lashes”, or rather, the tiny feathers on the lower eyelid that serve the same purpose as lashes in mammals, but it’s not quite as difficult as it first appears, and the idea seems to have some merit. Greg writes more on the Illinois Birding forum here.

In any case the mystery is solved, and while Illinois must wait a but longer for the state’s first Broad-tailed Hummingbird, the bright side is that, after the hullabaloo involving this particular bird, all parties involved are a whole lot more prepared for that record now.

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Nate Swick

Nate Swick

Nate Swick is the editor of the American Birding Association Blog. A long-time member of the bird blogosphere, Nate has been writing about birds and birding at The Drinking Bird since 2007, but can also be found writing regularly at 10,000 Birds. In the non-digital world, he's an environmental educator and interpretive naturalist. He is also the author of Birding for the Curious. Nate lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Danielle, and two young children, who are not yet aware that they are being groomed to be birders.
Nate Swick

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  • Just curious, which markers did they sequence?

  • Hey Ryan,

    Josh Engel of the Field Museum talks about it here:

  • Frode Jacobsen

    I agree that the ND2 (mtDNA) data shows that the individual’s mother was a Rufous Hummingbird, but I would argue that the fact that the bird was homozygous at a single nuclear locus is not sufficient evidence against hybrid origin. Such a conclusion is merely based on the premise that each species have a unique DNA sequence at all genes/loci. However, nuclear DNA sorts out much more slowly than mtDNA and two (even distantly related) species can therefore very well share identical copies of the same gene retained since they split from their common ancestor.

  • Frode,

    We used AK1 because it shows a handful of SNPs among the three possible parents. The only nuclear markers that seem to have been sequenced for all three are the AK1 intron and a beta-fibrinogen intron. Bfib had no informative SNPs for this purpose, but AK1 had plenty. If the bird were a first-generation hybrid, there should have been at least 3 heterozygous sites (I can’t remember the exact number off the top of my head right now) in AK1. We feel confident an F1 hybrid is not a possibility for this bird. Having said that, I’m still playing devil’s advocate and saying that the current data does not exclude a backcross of some kind. It could easily be an F2 or more, and we would not know. It would obviously take a bit more work to figure that out!


    P.S. I didn’t know you were a birder! It would be great to meet you some day, as I’ve used info from your papers extensively. I’ve been using the same Z-linked markers that you used for the orioles. Any postdoc openings in the Omland lab? 🙂

  • If you have to be able to identify eyelashes this will help. The Wearable Hummingbird Feeder, hummingbirds feed right in front of your eyes about an inch above your nose about as close as you can get. Two min YouTube video

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