Melanie Barboni, an assistant researcher at UCLA’s Earth, Planetary and Space Science department, is known as an expert in geology and volcanic activity among her colleagues, but those who haven’t worked with her before know her only as the “hummingbird whisperer”. She has always been fascinated by the tiny birds, and after moving to Los Angeles, she has nurtured a colony of over 200 hummingbirds right outside her office window.
Growing up in Switzerland, a country with an almost non-existent population of hummingbirds, Melanie Barboni admired the colorful birds in books, but dreamed of one day seeing them up close, so when she learned that her next job assignment would lead her to Los Angeles, California, where hummingbirds live all year round, she was overjoyed. She has spent the two years since developing a colony of 200-plus hummingbirds right outside her office window, by hanging four nectar-filled feeders for them. Melanie has gotten so close to her hummingbirds that she “cannot go to a place where they are not there”.
Photo: UCLA video screengrab
“They are just so cute, and so smart! They remember you. They get to know you, and then they interact with you,” Barboni told UCLA Newsroom. “This is cheesy, but I have seen them help people. They make my life happy. Having a crappy day? Who cares — there are hummingbirds around. Having a good day? Hummingbirds make it better.”
Melanie wasted no time in trying to befriend the local hummingbird population, installing a feeder outside her office on her very first day at UCLA. Soon, a tiny bird started hovering outside her window. She didn’t expect an answer when she asked for her name, but when the hummingbird squeaked loudly in response, Barboni was satisfied, and she became “Squeak”. The young researcher quickly gained the bird’s trust, and soon she was eating nectar right out of her hand. She often flies straight into Melanie’s office and sometimes falls asleep on her monitor, as she works. “I couldn’t say I tamed her,” Barboni said. “Actually, what happened is she tamed me.”
Photo: Melanie Barboni
Squeak had chicks, and other hummingbirds discovered Melanie Barboni’s always-full feeders, and before she knew it, she had hundreds of them waiting outside her window every day. If she doesn’t feed them in a timely manner, they will fly into her office to “yell” at her, but Melanie knows it’s only because “they know I will give them everything”.
Melanie knows at least 50 of her hummingbirds by name, and they in turn return her affection, letting her stroke their feathers, perching on her hand and even showing her their nests and allowing her to take fascinating photos. Her incredible relationship with the hummingbirds has also inspired other colleagues at UCLA to put out nectar-filled feeders of their own to create what is now known as the “Hummingbird Alley”.
“They are, in every aspect, remarkable. They are tiny but fierce. They have so much personality, an amazing metabolism,” Melanie said about her beloved hummingbirds. “They are Mother Nature’s best creation. … She was trying to make one tiny perfect jewel, and I think she got it perfectly right.”