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The mystery hummingbird of Chicago

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Just about a month ago, I posted on the weekly Rare Bird Alert roundup a mention of a Selaphorus-type hummingbird coming to a feeder in the Chicago, Illinois, area.  The bird was initially identified, not unjustifiably, as the state’s first record of Broad-tailed Hummingbird, a highly migratory species with a history of vagrancy east of its range.

It wasn’t long after the first diagnostic photos were taken that several hummingbird experts expressed some skepticism about the identification.  The bird in question showed several field marks consistent with a subadult male Broad-winged Hummingbird, but there was something off about it too.

Chicago hummer
photo by Greg Neise, used with permission

Thus began a heated, but polite, debate about the hummingbird’s true identity, with many hummingbird banders coming to the conclusion that the bird may, in fact, be a hybrid with Broad-tailed as one of the parents.  Guesses for the other half included Rufous and Calliope, but it was impossible to determine the parentage with any degree of certainty without some sort of DNA analysis.

The bird had stumped much of Illinois’ birding community, confusion that even generated some press interest, but without usable DNA samples, the bird’s identity would likely remain a mystery.

Enter Chicago’s renowned Field Museum of Natural History, who decided to attempt to get those DNA samples from the bird’s droppings, a process that has never been done before on a hybrid hummingbird. This attempt sadly ended unsuccessfully, as the droppings proved unreliable for extracting usable samples, but yesterday a bander finally succeeded in capturing the bird and getting measurements along with a feather sample.

When the results were posted, the measurements seem to eliminate Calliope as a potential parent, but everything else slots this bird right between Rufous and Broad-tailed and leaning a bit towards the second.  With The feather sample was taken to the Field Museum to begin analysis, the final result is expected to be ready in a week or so.

Hopefully, the mystery will be solved, and Illinois birders will know for sure whether they’ve got the state’s first Broad-tailed or just a tantalizing close hybrid.

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Nate Swick

Nate Swick

Editor, Social Media Manager at American Birding Association
Nate Swick is the editor of the American Birding Association Blog, social media manager for the ABA, and the host of the American Birding Podcast. He lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Danielle, and two young children. He is the author of Birding for the Curious and The ABA Field Guide to Birds of the Carolinas.
Nate Swick

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  • Katrina

    If it turns out to be a hybrid, I wouldn’t call it “just a hybrid”. I think a proven hybrid would be incredibly interesting in its own right.

  • Jesse Ellis

    I very much agree, Katrina. While from a lister’s perspective it might be “just” a hybrid, biologically it would be quite important. To say “just” a hybrid does not do the bird justice, regardless of the length of Illinois’s list of bird life.

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