When Bill Hilton Jr., who earned a master’s degree in ecology, evolution and behavior in 1982, found himself at the airport with a few minutes to kill last November, he figured he’d drop by the newsstand. Imagine his shock when he thumbed through a copy of Discover magazine’s just-published article on the “50 Best Brains in Science,” and found himself listed as one of them.
“I had no idea,” he says. “I had gotten a phone call last summer from someone saying they were doing an article about amateur scientists … I sent them a link to my biography and that was it. It was a total surprise.”
An educator and naturalist, Hilton is founder of a York, South Carolina environmental learning center, the brains behind an international citizen science project known as Operation RubyThroat, and a man on a mission.
Hilton came to the University of Minnesota in the late 1970s as a high school science teacher interested in bolstering his knowledge of natural history. He says the experience—which included three years studying the behavioral ecology of blue jays—was transformational.
“I became a much better naturalist. I became a much better scientist. I know I became a better teacher,” he says. “What more could you ask from a university?”
After finishing his degree Hilton returned to South Carolina and the classroom. But the field research bug would not let go. Curious about the ruby-throated hummingbirds that frequented the old farmstead where he and his family lived, he applied for and received special federal authorization to capture and band hummingbirds. Within a week he had banded 75 of the birds.
“Since then I’ve just continued at a pretty steady pace,” he says. He has banded some 52,000 birds of 124 species to date, including nearly 4,000 hummingbirds. He built trails through his 11-acre property, incorporated it as the nonprofit Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History, and started guiding field trips literally in his own backyard. In 1996 he established Operation RubyThroat, a citizen science/nature education program revolving around hummingbirds that eventually was funded in part by National Science Foundation.
“One of my great joys in life is that I can’t separate my professional life from my personal life,” Hilton says. “I get up in the morning, catch birds, write about it on my website, go out in the evening and lecture to people. I live where I work and I do what I am.”
As part of Operation RubyThroat, for the past five years Hilton has led groups of teachers and citizen scientists on expeditions to Costa Rica to study ruby-throated hummingbirds on their wintering grounds. “As the only scientist looking at ruby-throats on the other end of their migratory path,” Hilton says, “I’m learning some very interesting things about these birds that spend half their year in the tropics.”
Hilton says that although he appreciates the validation the Discover article gave to his work, that’s not what makes him most proud.
“Even though I’ve spent my life learning about nature, there’s no sense learning unless you share with other people. I feel like my greatest accomplishment is sharing that knowledge with others so they become as excited about nature as I am.”
— Mary Hoff
Learn more about Bill Hilton Jr.’s work at www.hiltonpond.org.