Q&A: Sedona Hummingbird Festival's Founder, Dr. H. Ross Hawkins

Photo by Beth Kingsley Hawkins

Photo by Beth Kingsley Hawkins

Recently Dr Ross Hawkins, the founder of the Sedona Hummingbird Festival sat down for an interview with Kerri Esten. Kerri, from Tehachapi, CA, is an avid hummingbird enthusiast and a major supporter of the Sedona Festival. In fact, Tehachapi is another major migratory stopping spot for hummingbirds during the summer. Kerri feeds hundreds of them every day and then sends them on their way. Here are some of the highlights of their conversation:

Kerri: I understand just over a thousand people attended last year's Sedona Hummingbird Festival, and that they came from 35 states, Canada and France. Is this year's event shaping up the same way?

Dr. Hawkins: Yes, ticket sales have been brisk since they began on April 1. We always encourage people to buy their tickets in advance on our website (www.SedonaHummingbirdFestival.com) even though tickets will be available at the door; buying in advance assures they won't be turned away. And some activities, including our Gala Banquet and the Birding Trips must be bought ahead of time.

Kerri: Why would people come from so far away?

Dr. Hawkins: Well, there are at least two primary reasons: first, we have perhaps the most interesting presentations by hummingbird experts of any hummingbird festival in the country; and second, because it is held in Sedona, a well-known travel destination. We chose the event's tagline to reflect this: "The Most Beautiful Place in America to see Hummingbirds." We also know that our festival is a wonderful place to meet some of the nicest people in the world: hummingbird lovers-and that's not an exaggeration. In addition, our ticket prices are very reasonable; children under 12 are even free with a paying adult.

Kerri: You aren't the first person I have met who is enthusiastic about hummers. What is there about these birds that make them capture our imagination?

Dr. Hawkins: First, they are fearless, when you might think such a small bird would have every reason to be shy and retiring. Walk into a yard with hummers, and they are more likely to fly up and check you out than to fly away in fear. I think we admire that. Second, their amazing life is so precarious: imagine if you had to eat every twenty minutes during your waking hours but could never be sure a feeder or flower would be there when you return!

Kerri: If they have to eat so often, how do they manage to fly so far during migration? I understand the ruby-throated hummingbird, which we almost never see in Arizona, flies nonstop across the Gulf of Mexico-and that's over 500 miles! And there are no feeders or flowers along their flight path.

Dr. Hawkins: Hummers fatten up before beginning their migration, many doubling their weight in a matter of weeks. They then burn that fat while flying. It's analogous to the airplane that carries extra fuel in wing-tip tanks; it's there when they need it. When migrating over land, the traveling hummingbird stops from time to time, spending several days to feed and add back the weight it has lost. Often this stopping point will be at streams or rivers, where there will also be insects and blooming flowers. Sedona and Oak Creek are right on the flight path for thousands of hummers from early July to late September. That's why we hold our Festival in mid-summer, to coincide with the peak numbers of hummingbirds and the peak diversity of species. We actually go from two species in June to six or seven in the summer. That alone draws visitors, especially folks from the East who rarely see more than one species the whole year.

Kerri: O.K., so seeing hummers is a big motivation for people to come to Sedona for the Festival. What else?

Dr. Hawkins: Learning about hummingbirds from true hummingbird experts can be exciting. This year we have Julie Zickefoose, a well-known author and NPR personality, describing her hummingbird rescue experiences. Dr. Susan Wethington is building the Hummingbird Monitoring Network, a hummingbird conservation program. Dr. Kenneth Welch, a scientist from the University of Toronto, will discuss exciting new ways he is studying hummingbird metabolism and behavior. Horticulturist Marc Fleming from the Desert Museum (Tucson) will share his ideas on hummingbird garden design. Marcy Scott, author of Hummingbird Plants of the Southwest, will share her extensive knowledge of what plants hummingbirds like. Dr. Juan Bahamón will share his dazzling photographs of the hummingbirds of Ecuador. And this is just a sample of the wonderful presenters we will have at the Festival.

Also, our free demonstrations of hummingbird banding are always very, very

popular here a tiny, lightweight aluminum band is attached like an anklet to a hummingbird's leg. The unique number on each band gives us a way to learn about their movements. Visitors may be lucky enough to hold a hummer for release after banding.

Kerri: Have you always been personally interested in hummingbirds?

Dr. Hawkins: Not always, just for thirty years or so. When my wife, Beth, and I bought our first home, she immediately put out flowers and feeders to attract hummers. It worked, and I've been hooked on watching, photographing, and studying them ever sinceKerri: I see the Festival is put on by The Hummingbird Society. Can you tell us about the Society?

Dr. Hawkins: Early in my studies of hummingbirds I was surprised to learn that about 10% of the 340+ species were at risk of extinction. Even more surprising was that I could find no conservation organization at the time that was doing anything about it. So in 1996 I formed the Society as a nonprofit conservation organization, and we've been working to support conservation efforts for several of the most endangered species. We are still small, but we are having an impact. We have members in every state and about twenty foreign countries.

Kerri: What else will attendees enjoy about your Festival?

Dr. Hawkins: We have invited about twenty artists and artisans to have booths at the Festival for our 'Hummingbird Marketplace'. Most of them specialize in hummingbirds. Original artwork, photographs, pottery, and 'all things hummingbirds' will be on sale. No ticket is required to browse and/or make purchases. This is a juried show, so the quality of items offered for sale is very high.

In addition, this year we have Garden Tours. These are four private gardens that can be visited, to see how they can be designed especially to appeal to hummingbirds.

Kerri: How can people learn more about the Festival?

Dr. Hawkins: By going to the very detailed Festival website at: www.hummingbirdsociety.org/hummingbird-festival. You can also buy tickets there.

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