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BULLETnature archive
Nature Archive Photo
© Philip Lowe

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Birds of a Feather?
As a general rule, members of the animal kingdom typically mate with their own kind, but not always. Among the most adventurous are hummingbirds.

By Jocelyn Buras

Superior Things didn't work out with Lyle Lovett and Julia Roberts, but in some cases, opposites really do attract. Consider the unlikely pairing of two adventurous hummingbirds — one a broad-billed and the other a violet-crowned. Turns out, they were more than just friends. In fact, they hooked up and hatched an egg, and their offspring, which was originally spotted in 2006, was recently seen again at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum in Superior.

As strange as it might sound, this hybrid hummer isn't the first of its kind. Hummingbirds are notorious for hybridizing. But this combination is significant because it's been more than a century since the last violet-crowned and broad-billed hybrid was spotted in the area.

Naturally — or unnaturally, depending on your point of view — the hybrid has become the star of Superior, attracting birders, photographers and freak-show aficionados from all over. A couple of followers have even given the bird a nickname, suggesting that "hybrid hummingbird" didn't really suit this particular hummer's ostentatious appeal.

Paul Wolterbeek, the arboretum's volunteer coordinator, says he and co-worker Gonzalo Ruiz, a native of Mexico, came up with the name while carpooling to work.

"I asked Gonzalo what they'd call a ladies' man back in his hometown — you know, the flashy, irresistible guy who always has his suits perfectly creased and looks impeccable," Wolterbeek says.

" 'Oh,' Gonzalo answered, 'El Catrin, the dancer.' "

The name stuck, and as you'll see, the "dancer" takes after both parents.

In most cases, broad-billed hummingbirds are relatively small, with a wide tail and a striking, metallic blue-green breast. The violet-crowned birds are much larger, and have a snow-white neck with a violet cap and an olive green body. El Catrin (below) inherited his intense, iridescent blue color and gray tips from his broad-billed parent, while his size and white markings suggest family ties to the violet-crowned parent.

Native to low, wooded canyons, broad-billed hummingbirds are frequent visitors to the arboretum, as well as other parts of Southern Arizona and Central Mexico. Violet-crowned hummingbirds, however, are found predominantly in Mexico and reach the edge of their breeding range in Southern Arizona, making them rare for the area. To date, the arboretum has no recorded history of a violet-crowned sighting.

Sheri Williamson of the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory says it's difficult to pinpoint what caused the parents of El Catrin to mate, but speculates it was likely a case of female compromise.

According to Williamson, the violet-crowned hummer was probably a female pioneer that wandered out of her native area. Unable to find another violet-crowned male to mate with, she was forced to consider another option.

"Once she prepares her nest, her biological clock is ticking," Williamson says. "If she doesn't find Mr. Right in time, she'll lose an opportunity to reproduce, so she may settle for Mr. Right Now, a male of another species."

Information: Boyce Thompson Arboretum, 520-689-2811 or www.pr.state.az.us/parks/both.

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