Andrew Dys

July 29, 2014

30 years of ruby-throated love: 5,000 hummingbirds banded at York man's home

Bill Hilton Jr. has banded almost 5,000 hummingbirds over three decades at his York wildlife sanctuary.

No horns blew. No cocks crowed. No bands played.

But something special happened the last week of July 1984 that is still happening outside of York on 11 acres that are silent except for the birds.

That was when Bill Hilton Jr. received his authorization to start banding hummingbirds. Since then, this guy has placed more metal bands on the tiniest legs in the bird kingdom than maybe anybody anywhere.

“4,921 and counting,” Hilton said on Tuesday. “So far this year, we have added 88. Likely we will go over 5,000 this year.”

Then he caught another one – one he had never banded.

“4,922,” he said.

All but two of those 4,922 have been ruby-throated hummingbirds. The other two were rufous hummingbirds that inexplicably had made their way from somewhere out west to the Hilton Pond Center for Natural History, Hilton’s wild bird sanctuary not far from the York city limits.

His life’s work – environmental research, conservation and education after starting out as a science teacher – is held in the palm of his hand.

A ruby-throated hummingbird weighs about three grams. That’s about the same as three paper clips, or a nickel minus a penny.

“The size of your thumb,” Hilton said, holding up two crossed thumbs to show the wingspan.

“Secret sign of Operation Ruby Throat,” he said. “Not so secret any more, I guess.”

That’s OK, too, as Hilton will talk about Operation Ruby Throat to anybody with ears. He would make the world’s worst spy.

“Operation Ruby Throat: The Hummingbird Project.” It sounds like a special op by a band of covert anti-terrorist commandos, but no, it is Hilton and the traps he uses to capture the tiny birds, then release them.

The tiny ruby-throated hummingbird each year somehow migrates a couple thousand miles back and forth to Central America, where Hilton himself also migrates regularly to band hummingbirds.

“We now know this to be true, because one of the birds I banded in Central America was found near Savannah, Georgia,” Hilton said. “In all our trips down there, we have banded more than 1,100 birds there, too.”

Just for good measure, Hilton has banded 126 species of birds over the years, and seen 171 species.

As of this week, Hilton has banded an incredible 60,571 birds.

But the ruby-throated hummingbird – the most common in this part of America but still an engineering marvel that can fly 60 mph, flapping its wings up to 80 times per second – is Hilton’s alter ego. He wears shirts with hummingbird pictures on them. He teaches students from every state and several foreign countries about them. He lives and breathes hummingbirds and has made a life studying them.

Hilton’s wife, Sue, a science teacher and now a school counselor, has never once in three decades wavered in her commitment to the project, either.

“Our house is a little different than most,” she chuckled.

Nobody else’s home has holes in the siding for the bird-lover inside to spring a trap door using fishing line.

The sugar-water feeder – four parts water, one part sugar – is the magnet.

When he finds a ruby-throated in a trap, the band might show one he has caught at his place since 2006. Or maybe – and nobody likes a surprise guest like Hilton – it’s one he has never caught.

“They come back here because this is where they are from,” Hilton said. “They know. They remember. The band proves it.”

The bands are so tiny it takes a surgeon’s skill to place them over pin-like legs. But the work is worth it, because when Hilton says, “Aha, this girl came back,” he can prove it – the numbered band.

Hilton, one of the top amateur scientists in the country, has twice been named South Carolina’s science teacher of the year and the top Biology teacher in the state in his career. He has been named one of the “50 Best Brains in Science” by Discover Magazine. He is the only naturalist who has spent 30 years studying the ruby-throated hummingbird – from York to Belize, Panama, Mexico, Guatemala and back.

Every single bird over the years has been banded and let go, unharmed. He has kept meticulous records of each one. He painstakingly updates his website – hiltonpond.org. He takes pictures and does exhausting field studies across the Americas. He has taken scores of bird-lovers and students to the jungles of Costa Rica and other places in search of this tiny bird no bigger than his thumb.

Hilton is an ornithologist, a bird scientist. But he is far more. He is smitten.

“I just love the ruby-throated hummingbird,” he said.

In a few weeks, Hilton likely will band his 5,000th ruby-throated hummingbird in York. He will have a shindig. He will raise a toast.

Sugar water for everyone – including the hummingbirds.

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