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Flying Jewels

Posted on 23 September 2010

web Humming Birds 044

by Jim Marquardt

Even if you have only a passing interest in nature, you’ll find hummingbirds a fascinating study. They are beautiful, easy to attract and observe. And they are unique, the smallest of all birds and the smallest of all warm-blooded creatures on the planet. Because their wings are built with swiveling shoulders that can execute a “figure eight,” they are the bird world’s super-helicopters, able to hover, fly upside down, backwards and side-to-side, straight up and down.

Thousands of plant species depend on them for pollination, according to Hummingbirds, Magic In the Air, a Nature DVD from PBS. In a marvel of evolution, plants have developed characteristics to accommodate and encourage visits by hummers, including flower shape, position and color. The bantam birds become coated with pollen as they feed, their hovering ability enabling them to access flowers without a perch. Feisty little creatures, they have a Napoleon complex and are the least social of all birds. They’ll defend their feeding territory against all intruders, including other hummers. The only time they cooperate is to swarm after hawks, owls, cats and snakes threatening their nests. Early Spanish explorers called them “flying jewels.” The ancient Aztecs believed that fallen warriors were reborn as hummingbirds, a tribute to their combative nature.

More than half their high metabolic energy comes from the nectar of flowers which is rich in sugar, especially sucrose. That’s what makes them easy to attract to your yard. If you’re a gardener, you can tempt them with fuchsia, columbine, dahlia, gladiolus, impatiens and amaryllis, but if your thumb isn’t green, you can buy an inexpensive feeder. The one on our deck in Noyac came from Aspects Inc. of Warren, Rhode Island, costs about $15 and holds eight ounces of fluid. Look for a durable, easy cleaning and easy filling design, probably in red plastic. To make your own nectar, simply dissolve one part white table sugar into four parts water and mix thoroughly. There’s no need for artificial sweeteners or colorants, but you must clean the feeder and change the fluid every three or four days before it grows bacteria and yeast, otherwise the birds could get sick. Hang the feeder near the house, close to a tree if possible since the hummers feel more secure with cover nearby. The directions for the feeder advise hanging it out of the wind, but ours is in a breezy location that doesn’t seem to bother the little birds.

Sibley’s Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America says that the only hummingbird in most of our region is the ruby-throated species which often nests near water, making Sag Harbor and environs a desirable habitat. All hummers are members of the trochilidae family and breed exclusively in North America. The pee-wee bird measures 3.75” long, has a 4.5” wing span, and tips the scale at 3.2 grams, one-tenth the weight of a first class letter. A nickel coin weighs 4.5 grams. The hummer is beautiful, an iridescent golden-green on its upper side and pale gray to white below. Only the male has a red throat which is edged along the top by a narrow black band. Its face is blackish. The female doesn’t display a red throat but appears to be wearing a white crew-neck sweater.

Hummers fill out their diet by catching insects, opening their long bills wide like a catcher’s mitt. Sheri Williamson, author of the Peterson Field Guides’ Hummingbirds of North America writes that the diminutive bird consumes one-and-a-half times its own weight every day to support its high-energy requirements. The bird’s long tongue darts out and licks up nectar by capillary action, moving it through membranous tubes to its throat. Digestion and extraction of sugar takes only twenty minutes, so upset stomachs aren’t a problem. It eats more nectar late in the day to get through the night when it goes into a torpor state to conserve energy.            

Most of the ruby-throated hummers are migratory, flying an amazing 4000 miles round trip from the Eastern U.S. to Panama. Cautious individuals follow the Louisiana-Texas coast line, while stronger, more daring hummers fly non-stop 500 miles across the Gulf of Mexico. They prepare for the journey by loading up on sugar and insects to gain two or three grams of fat. It sounds impossible but renowned authority Sibley claims their wings beat up to seventy times per second, producing a faint, high whistle in flight.

The female picks a mate from among male suitors who try to win her favor by showing off their acrobatic flying skills and iridescent plumage. Once pregnant, she ditches the male, who moves on to other dalliances, and builds a nest on the branch of a tree, starting with sticky, silk threads stolen from spiders and padded with plant fiber. She fashions a cup-like nest by stamping her feet, rotating her body and smoothing the edge with her chin. Two eggs, each half the size of a jelly bean, are the smallest of any bird’s. They incubate in 12 to 20 days. The single mother then feeds the babies on a protein-rich diet of regurgitated insects and attacks birds or squirrels that dare to threaten them. Hummers live fast and die young, with a life span of only three to five years.

It’s a little late in the season to hang a feeder, but you can try now or wait until spring. Don’t worry about hummers getting addicted to a feeder and missing migration, they’ll leave when they decide it’s time, usually in late September. And be patient, give them a chance to locate your feeder. Once they find it, they’ll return many times during the day for quick snacks. Except for cleaning and refilling every three or four days, you can sit back and admire nature’s tiniest bird.  Our seven-year old grandson, at the end of his summer stay with us, said he wanted to buy a hummingbird feeder when he got back home. Alleluia! Maybe he’ll spend less time thumbing Nintendo games. 

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