This summer I have been trying to photograph more than just wild flowers. I love wild flowers, but there are other great subjects–such as birds. What could be better than hummingbirds. It is very difficult to photograph them because they are usually on the fly. They are magnificent flyers. As a photographer I sometimes wish they were not so magnificent
A few years ago I watched a PBS show called Magic in the Air, about those amazing hummingbirds. These are astounding birds, truly “the most remarkable things on 2 wings,” as the show said. They are “intriguing, enchanting and utterly captivating.”
Hummingbirds are so fast that they rarely provide more than a fleeting glimpse to the observer. That is a pity because there is much to see. Because they are so fast I was surprised to see that I captured this hummingbird in flight.
There are 350 or so species of hummingbird, but all of them are found in the western hemisphere. In the west they are found in “dazzling diversity.” The hummingbird is the smallest of all warm-blooded creatures.
The television show displayed some stunning slow motion photography, for it is only then that one can really learn to appreciate these amazing flying machines. Even if the bird finds a flower that is blowing in the wind, the bird is able to “stand still” in the air beside the flower. No other bird can hover as well as that. When they are balanced in the air they look like they are floating in the air.
Professor Doug Aufschuler, interviewed on the show called them “some of the most elite athletes of the animal world.” That is surely no exaggeration. They can fly, not just backwards, but in a figure 8 pattern. Besides flying backwards they can briefly fly upside down.
Professor Pearson said that although humans have caused incredible damage on wild life, not all species are in decline. Why is that? Dr. Pearson finds this important. So do I. The fact is that some species have adapted to life on a planet dominated by one species, Homo sapiens. They seem to like us! Can we learn something from the adaptable species?
Pearson said that scientists have learned that some species in urban environments have experienced accelerated evolution. For example, cockroaches and pigeons have changed their behaviors to live and even thrive in urban environments. How did that happen?
Scientists have been studying a species I am very familiar with. It is called Crepis setosa, or Hawksbeard. It was originally brought over to North America by Europeans and now is common all over North America including Manitoba. Scientists have learned a very surprising thing about this common plant, namely, that it has evolved its method of propagating seeds. Instead of sending them in the wind it is now tending to drop the seeds to the ground instead. What is remarkable about this evolution is that it has happened in 15 years! That is an astonishing rate of evolution.
Coyotes in cities have also been evolving to live alongside humans. As a result coyotes have learned to hunt deer in packs, they are less shy, larger, have different teeth, and have larger territories than they did a short time ago. Again they adapted and then evolved in very short periods of time. That is why coyotes can now be found in nearly every major city of North America. I have seen them in Vancouver.
European Blackbirds have first adapted and then evolved to sing louder songs. They have done that of course to compete with noises humans have brought to cities.
30 years ago Anna’s Hummingbirds did not fly to Arizona. At least they were very rare. Now they are common. At this time of year where we live they are the most common hummingbirds. Why is that? Do they love the feeders that humans put out all over? Has the climate changed enough to attract them? Now these hummingbirds have found that they likelife in the city. People plant flowers all over the place just for them. So it must seem. The heat island effect of cities is also likely attractive to Hummingbirds. They seem to like cities, and who can blame them? Maybe they even like us!
Neo-tropic cormorants are not common to the Phoenix area, but there were virtually none here 15 years ago. Things have changed enough that these birds have learned to adapt to the city, even though they must share it with about 5 million other people. Now these cormorants are common.
These are examples of species that are managing to adapt to live and even thrive with humans. Can more species do this? Are there things humans can do to make adaptations by other species easier? These are all questions that Professor Pearson raised.
The problems of species decline are massive. We will need more knowledge. Knowledge is more important than money. Though it costs money too. We will have to work together, collaborate, to get more knowledge. All of that knowledge, experience, and wisdom will have to be shared so that we can attack the problems ahead.
Further changes in the urban ecosystem can be expected. Change is the only constant. Social, economic, and cultural changes are all important. Their impacts will be important. The continuing rise of the numbers in the middle class will have a major impact on the world. As the numbers of the middle class rise, their impact on the environment will grow exponentially. There will be greater consumption, more cars, greater waste, increased pollution, expanding extraction of resources, and always, more degradation of the environment as a consequence. This is what we can look forward to if we’re lucky!
Yet again there will be positives too. It won’t be all bad. We can expect people to have fewer children and that will mitigate environmental impacts. Education will improve and that will improve the lives of millions. People will have more free time. People will have more hobbies. All of this will bring about more citizen science. It is a sad fact that there is not enough money, even in the richest country in the world, to fund all the research that is needed. Pearson believes, citizen science will help reduce the harmful effects of this omission.
Of course people must learn to do more than play with their phones, iPads or watch their various monitors. People will have to learn to enjoy learning. Private citizens who become bird watchers are good examples of the new citizens that will be needed. Scientists will use these people to help them do science. The professional amateur will be a boon to society. More and more researchers will look to them for help in many disciplines.
Scientists will have to learn to collaborate more, use social interaction to a greater extent. A good example is how Scientists will learn to use crowd sourcing to a greater extent. Many use it already. If a scientist puts a question ‘out there,’ it is amazing how many responses the scientist will get and how many creative solutions or proposals. Businesses will learn to do this too. A business has a problem, it asks the world to comment, suggest, and help. This will become much more common. Perhaps the best solutions will be rewarded.
All of this can help to create a new ecology, including urban ecology. That does not mean the Grand Canyon won’t be important any more. It does mean we won’t be able to rely solely on such iconic places. The urban landscape might become more important than the Grand Canyon from a conservation perspective.
The key question will be: how do we work with nature manage and control the new world that is rapidly approaching? It will be vitally important for us to learn to adapt. Species will be lost. What can we do to minimize the losses while fostering the gains? What will be the future of biodiversity in the cities in 2090? Will we recognize them? We will need big parks in the city. Parks like Central Park in New York City, or Hyde Park in London, or Assiniboine Park in Winnipeg. Politicians a century ago had foresight. Those parks were very expensive but those leaders found the will and the money to do such great projects. We will need such forward thinking from our current crop of political leaders.
Things won’t be easy, but we have a chance. We must take that chance with eyes and minds both wide open.
After our adventures on the highways we did make it safely to our rented home in San Tan Valley Arizona. Our first Arizona friends to visit us were the hummingbirds. They arrived the first day we were here and went directly to the same spot we had our feeder last year before we had time to set it up. How smart is that? I don’t think anyone has fed them here for 9 months!
As we were reading in the backyard, we saw an intense aerial display that could match any of the dogfights in either of our World Wars. Two Anna’s Hummingbirds conducted this military exercise. They flew after each other for so long that mostly they had no time to dine on the nectar we provided. That is not very smart! I did get a couple of photos of one of them in one of the few moments when he stopped to drink, including the image above.
Humans have a strong tendency to think they are better and smarter than everything else. Many of us believe that God made this world for humans to rule. The world is subordinate to us. Sometimes however, humans should learn a little humility.
I have watched a few astonishing nature shows on television about hummingbirds. One of them was about Andy Hurley and his research partner Sue Healy who study hummingbirds. In particular, they study rufous humming birds, astonishing little birds with brains the size of a grain of rice. Yet even these birds are smart–very smart. Their hearts can beat at more than a 1,000 beats per minute! Their wings beat at more than 70 times per second! All of that requires the expenditure of an enormous amount of energy. How do they get that energy? Well they need to be smart to find it.
Hurley and Healy found that in the lab birds like this do surprising things, but not nearly as surprising as the things that the birds do in their environment. That is where their intelligence really shines. They set up a number of fake flowers for the real birds. Each a different colour. They created a pattern of cardboard disks on top of sticks or poles stuck into the ground to resemble flowers. These were artificial flowers filled with a sucrose solution that resembles nectar. The birds were actually offered slightly better food than they would get in the wild, in order to keep them interested. “Being smart birds they recognized a good thing when they saw it.” They kept coming back for the nectar of the gods. “Not only do they see it; they remember it,” Hurley said.
Because male rufous hummingbirds are so territorial, the same bird comes back to the cafeteria over and over again. As Hurley said, “A Male rufous hummingbirds has hundreds if not thousands of flowers in its territory. As a result, he has to remember where good food is, andwhere he has just visited.” That takes serious smarts! As Healy said, “they seem to know where a flower is after one visit. One visit! And we are still asking ourselves how do they do it?” Remember that is one visit among hundreds or even thousands of flowers! That also takes serious smarts. No doubt this is far beyond my capacity. But that is not all. They are even smarter than that!
As David Suzuki, who presented the show, said, “Its not just bird brain power, its biology. Hummingbirds have such a high metabolism they cannot afford to waste precious energy looking for food.”
People need a meal every 3 or 4 or 5 hours. “Hummingbirds are thinking I need a meal every 10 minutes! They have to make decisions that are really important, and if they don’t do it well they die. ” If we miss MacDonald’s we can always go to Wendy’s down the street. It doesn’t much matter to us. We have the time to make mistakes and correct them. Hummingbirds don’t have the luxury of much time. They cannot make a lot of mistakes.
Hummingbirds have another big problem–that is biodiversity. Normally that is a good thing for all of us, but for hummingbirds in the wild that can be a serious obstacle. In the wild, unlike the nectar Café the scientists could create, flowers replenish their nectar at different rates. In the experiment the scientists mimicked this diversity. The question then became can the hummingbird figure out which fake flowers are empty and which are filled with sucrose solution? The scientists were shocked at how well these tiny birds with their tiny brains did in the wild.
For half the flowers, after a bird visited, the scientists waited 10 minutes before replenishing. The other half of the flowers were refilled after 20 minutes. So a bird came in, visited 3 or 4 flowers, then went away and came back 10 or 15 minutes later, and then the bird must decide which flowers have not yet given up nectar and which ones will have it already. That is no an easy test. I would not want to take this examination, particularly if my life depended on it. Hummingbirds have no choice. They take such tests every day, over and over again. As a result the scientists saw a hummingbird that had already sipped from 2 flowers. Then when it returned it headed straight for a new one. After a day of doing this, the hummingbird had a remarkable ability to separate out the 10 minute and 20 minute flowers. The bird must treat them differently.
Scientists call this episodic memory. I am glad I heard this expression. That is because I know I will forget it. That’s because I have so little of it. “They have to remember not just the what, and the where, but the when.” As Suzuki said, “this is a cognitive skill once thought to belong only to humans.” How wrong can we get? How stupid are we? At least in comparison to these little birds with their minute brains.
Hurley described this well, when he said, “I would need a clipboard and pencil and 8 different stop watches for hours and hours and hours. Yet the birds are able to do this, seemingly without effort. They are smarter than me.” They are astonishing creatures and we have underestimated them–forever. As Healy said, “These birds have extraordinarily small brains and yet they do things that we find phenomenal.”
Naturally, that brings up an important question, ‘when it comes to brains does size matter?’ Humans are a good example of species where the size of brains does matter. Humans have very large brains for the size of their bodies and humans have an astounding capacity thanks to their brains. Well some of us at least.
The question was, ‘can a hummingbird outsmart a human?’ It seems unlikely. Andy Hurley is still amazed by hummingbirds after studying them for more than 25 years. Hurley said, “I’ve been humbled by these birds.” That was a lesson he wanted to pass on to his students. Humility is good.
Hurley did an experiment that required his students–smart University students–to forage like a hummingbird at the University of Lethbridge. He set up a memory test with candy instead of nectar. This one was to test the students. He had 8 paper cups. 4 of the paper cups were visited by students earlier. He asked the students to go to the cups that they had not yet visited to determine if they had candy hidden underneath them or not. One would think humans could do this easily. After all, humans have huge brains, and university students are thought to be the best of the best. The Students did pretty good. They got it right 75% of the time. This was the same as hummingbirds!
This made Professor Hurley say to his students, “You have brains that are 7,000 times larger than hummingbirds. My question is what are you doing with all those neurons? Why are you not scoring better than an animal that has a tiny, tiny brain?” The students chuckled. They chuckled at themselves that is.
Why are hummingbirds so smart? According to Professor Hurley, “the answer is that there is intense natural selection of hummingbirds to get this right because if they don’t they die.” Now humans have figured this out. They are pretty smart too.