The tale of Yosemite Sam: How a California hummingbird got lost and landed in Saskatoon

While most local birds were working on their migration down south, in mid-October a young male hummingbird instead landed in a Saskatoon backyard.

The arrival of the 2.8 gram bird shocked birding enthusiasts around the province as that species of hummingbird — Costa’s hummingbirds, native to the Southwestern United States and Western Mexico — had never been seen in the province before.

The mystery of how the tiny hummingbird got to Saskatoon caught the eye of Environment Canada Chemist Geoff Koehler. His team used a technique called stable isotope analysis to examine a tail feather and determine where the bird came from.

“The bird was hatched around the Yosemite National Park area,” Koehler said.

Man  posing for a picture outisde
Geoff Koehler, an Environment Canada Chemist, was part of the team who determined the humming bird was hatched near Yosemite National Park. They determined this by using stable isotope analysis. (Submitted by Geoff Koehler)

That’s how the tiny Costa’s hummingbird got his newly appointed name: Yosemite Sam.

Birds normally fly south for the winter months, but Yosemite Sam flew north. Koehler said that error is called reverse migration.

“Sometimes birds just go the wrong way,” Koehler said. “When they go the wrong way they go the wrong way 180 degrees. Instead of going south they goes north, they don’t go east or west.”

Is Yosemite Sam enjoying his first Saskatoon winter?

Koehler said this is the first time his team has been able to look at a case of reverse migration to find out the birthplace of a bird using stable isotope techniques.

“Usually if a bird goes the wrong way, it doesn’t make it through the winter,” Koehler said.

“This little bird was lucky to have found a home in Saskatoon where he could be rescued.”

Closeup of a hummingbird.
The Costa’s Hummingbird at the Living Sky Wildlife Rehabilation centre in Saskatoon. (Submitted by Krista Trinder)

After finding Yosemite Sam, the owners of the yard he landed in called Living Sky Wildlife Rehabilitation, a Saskatoon charity that helps injured and orphaned animals mend until they can return to the wild, and got the bird into care.

Jan Shadick, the executive director of Living Sky, said the hummingbird has been well cared for at the wildlife rehabilitation centre. 

Yoesemite Sam is living in a cage designed to feel like California, where he enjoys a specialized expensive diet consisting of fruit flies and a special protein drink with ingredients brought from the United States.

“Hopefully he has enough to keep him busy. We do hear him flying around, buzzing and chirping,” Shadick said.

“Hopefully he’s not too bored and he’s having enough fun that he’s willing to hang out with us until spring.”

How will Yosemite Sam make it home?

Shadick hopes to find a rehabilitation centre for Yosemite Sam in California that can release him back into the wild — but now that the bird has crossed international borders, an export permit is needed to bring him home.

The California rehabilitation centre would also need an import permit to bring him in.

tiny hummingbird in someone's hand
The full purple georgette is a sign of an adult male Costa’s Humming bird. Shadick said if there was ever any doubt as to what his species was, it certainly is not of any doubt now. (Submitted by Jan Shadick)

If an international border crossing isn’t possible, she hopes to bring Yosemite Sam to a rehabilitation centre in British Columbia — where Costa’s Hummingbirds have been seen — but permits are still required to cross provincial borders.

“He could have some mentors to at least take him in the right direction,” Shadick said.

Shadick would be concerned about releasing Yosemite Sam from Saskatoon. She says he came in an adventurous error, and isn’t sure the Costa’s hummingbird would have the instinct to migrate south.

“1,900 kilometres is a long way to go, and there’s some concern that releasing him here would not necessarily bode well for him,” Shadick said.

“He may not make it back.” 

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