home: www.rubythroat.org

4 June 2000

Sound reasons to study hummingbirds
By Joseph Szadkowski

The Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) is one of 338 types of hummingbirds. These tiny creatures, which live in the Western Hemisphere, measure three inches from tip of beak to tip of tail, can fly up to 40 mph during a courtship dive, can live up to nine years, and travel across the Gulf of Mexico in 20 hours. Imagine, a week ago, the only thing I knew about hummingbirds was that they sort of hum. Thanks to one man's passion for ornithology, Web surfers all over the world have a chance to enter the realm of one of nature's most fascinating feathered friends.

Operation RubyThroat

Site address:

Operation RubyThroat is a Web-based initiative of the Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History, a nonprofit research-and-education organization based in York, S.C. The center (www.hiltonpond.org) has become one of the most active bird research locations in the Southeast, having banded and released nearly 37,500 wild birds since 1982.

Creator quotable:
"Although the Web site is available to the general public as a source of practical information about hummingbirds, it is actually an outgrowth of the center's desire to build connections among young people in North and Central America by using the ruby-throated hummingbird as a common topic for investigation," says Bill Hilton Jr., executive director of Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History. "We created the Web site to assess interest in such a project and have been gratified by the positive response."      

Word from the Webwise:
The Web address may conjure up visions of a serious medical disorder characterized by an inflamed epiglottis, but Operation RubyThroat confines itself to the life, loves and lore of the flighty, long-beaked bird.

The 8-month-old site incorporates text, graphics and a mixture of colorful pages within a striking yellow backdrop that may seem antiquated to surfers looking for the latest and greatest in Web technology.

However, do not sell this cyber-stop short. Six primary sections--Project Details, Projects and Activities, How to Participate, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Hummingbird Banding, Hummingbird Miscellany--with deeply linked pages immerse visitors in an enormous educational experience.

The site's lofty mission of "building cooperation and understanding throughout North and South America" is explained under Project Details. Participants in the project live in the United States, Canada, Mexico and Central America and routinely observe the ruby-throated hummingbird and share information with peers across North and Central America.

Data collected about the behavior of the birds and distribution of the population is submitted to a central clearinghouse, analyzed and then diss-eminated through the site and print publications.

Operation RubyThroat also has become an organized classroom activity at several schools in South Carolina, North Carolina and New York. Expect recruitment of additional schools, including schools in the District, next year.

Visitors looking for a starting point to learn about the species of hummingbird named by Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus will want to wade through the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds pages. In this section, they will learn about everything from migration patterns to the bird's anatomy and physiology to reproductive behavior patterns to ecological relationships.

Visitors with a penchant for understanding the process of banding (which allows ornithologists to track the birds and develop invaluable research by placing a tiny bracelet on a bird's feet) will find a section with information on the hows and whys of banding, the process of banding, how hummingbirds are captured and the current data obtained by tracking banded birds.

Do not expect to run out and start catching and tagging the little fellows, however. Only about 50 people in the United States and Canada are permitted by the governments to perform this procedure on hummingbirds, and it is best left to the experts in the field.

Other places to visit within the site include a bulletin-board area for posting questions for Mr. Hilton to answer; the projects and activities area, which features word searches, crossword puzzles and coloring pages; and a place to learn how to deal with injured or dead hummingbirds.    

Ease of use:
Despite the lack of a search engine, Operation RubyThroat
[Webmaster's note: One was added in Spring 2001] still offers easy navigation with a handy menu at the top of every page, a table of contents and plenty of links to redefine location. The site designer's technical goal was to make the pages as quick-loading as possible so students and schools with slow modems would have no trouble getting to the information. He sacrificed flash for speed, and even with a deadly slow 28.8k modem, pages loaded in less than 10 seconds.

Family activity:
Visitors who do not have the time to set up a hummingbird sanctuary and participate in the project (the site explains how to do this) will want to print out instructions to build an origami hummingbird. The project was developed by Collin Weber and also can be found at Eric Andersen's Origami Web site, PaperFolding.com (www.paperfolding.com). Through a 32-step process, paper magically is transformed into an ornament, making a perfect gift for any member of the family.

Don't miss:
Two places worth seeking out include the glossary of hummingbird terms and a photo gallery found under Hummingbird Miscellany. First click on the glossary for an incredibly diverse and in-depth lexicon ranging from "altricial" to "yucatan." Second, the photo gallery provides illustrations and real-life images revealing the beauty of the ruby-throated bird.

Cyber-sitter synopsis:
Operation RubyThroat will keep children in seventh grade and above entertained only long enough to get their school reports filed. This is no slight to the site, only recognition of the reality that hummingbirds may not be the hippest of subjects for younger children.

Family fun factor: 85 percent
Information grade: A+

Have a cool site about science or health for the family? Write to Joseph Szadkowski at Webwise, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; call 202/636-3016; or send e-mail (joseph@twtmail.com).

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Operation RubyThroat is a registered trademark of Bill Hilton Jr. and Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History in York, South Carolina USA, phone (803) 684-5852. Contents of the overall project and this website--including photos--may NOT be duplicated, modified, or used in any way except with the express written permission of the author. To obtain permission or for further assistance on accessing this website, contact Webmaster.