Watch How Hummingbird Hackers Keep Up With Their Quick, Tiny Subjects

More scientists are embracing inventive ways to decode the biology and behavior of a unique bird family.

In a lab filled with sensors, circuits, and cables, Alejandro Rico-Guevara has devised what may be the world’s strangest hummingbird feeder. Responding to timed lights and beeps, the hungry guests stick their beaks into a flower-shaped contraption and hover for a beat so a machine has time to gauge their oxygen intake. After, a tiny computer-controlled gate opens to a sugary reward.

At least that’s the idea. Getting the setup right has taken months of tinkering, says the University of California, Berkeley evolutionary biologist. “The birds are hard-wired to be fast,” Rico-Guevara explains. “We are trying to reverse all these years of evolution with training.”

Growing up in Colombia, Rico-Guevara never paid much attention to how gadgets worked; he was always more fascinated by the natural world. But these days, in his quest to better learn how hummingbirds consume and use energy, he’s as likely to play around with microcontrollers as traipse through a tropical forest. He blames the birds for turning him into a tech geek, and he’s not the only one.

Spurred by rapid improvements in software and the dropping cost of electronics, more ornithologists and biologists are now crossing disciplines to study one of the planet’s most distinctive avian families. Through inventive tools and experiments, they’re unearthing data on tough-to-study traits of hummingbirds, such as their voracious metabolism, rapid-fire flight patterns, and endurance during migration—allowing a clearer picture of the tiny acrobats and their needs to emerge.

Take Paolo Segre, a Stanford University biologist who co-led a 2018 study that analyzed some 300,000 in-flight turns, twists, and accelerations of 25 hummingbird species in South and Central America. “I think we’re really going to be entering into a golden age of understanding how animals maneuver using videography, just because the technology is advancing so rapidly,” he says.

He and his collaborators used synchronized high-speed cameras and computer vision—the kind Facebook might use to identify faces in a photo—to collect data that Segre says could lead to more aerodynamic designs of turbines and propellers. Operating this elaborate system in the remote jungle wasn’t easy, but with a little self-instruction and help from his programming buddies, Segre was able to pull it off.

“You can’t find many engineers who are going to sit out in the Amazon for three months, and you can’t find many pure ornithologists who are as interested in taking this sort of technological approach,” he says. “That’s where I fit in.”

Meanwhile, not far from Rico-Guevara’s Berkeley lab, University of California, Davis veterinary researcher Lisa Tell is gauging how urban habitats affect hummingbird health and range. She collaborated with engineers on campus to develop the first technology that collects precise, around-the-clock intel on multiple feeding birds at the same time. “I gave them ideas about what I wanted to do, and then we would go back and forth,” she says.

Together, they paired regular nectar feeders with radio-frequency antennas to scan the minuscule tags that Tell and her team implanted under hundreds of Anna’s and Allen’s Hummingbirds’ feathers. In December, she published the stats and schedules of some 65,000 visits, allowing her to map the birds’ network of interactions at the feeding stations.

All three scientists agree that new tech-enabled insights about hummingbird biology and behaviors could lead to stronger methods of conservation. For example, as Tell expands her work, she hopes to identify how diseases may spread at feeders and share tips for reducing those risks. Segre’s flight data, too, reveal how climate change could subtly impede the birds’ maneuvering abilities if they’re pushed to higher elevations. Finally, Rico-Guevara’s well-concealed respirometer might help pinpoint the right plants and microhabitats to sustain the metabolic needs of different species.

But it’s the drive to delve more into a fascinating group of birds that’s pushed Rico-Guevara out of his comfort zone. “What I’m really into is answering questions,” he says. “And the way you need to answer questions about hummingbirds is by using these technologies.”

This story originally ran in the Spring 2019 issue as “Hummingbird Hackers.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.