Our Window on Nature

. . . exploring the world around us

Hummingbird Helicopters

Filed under: Birds — Lowell Christie -- March 24, 2015 @ 7:42 pm

RufusHummer-Ryan BushbyBack in 1764, an astounded William Wood wrote these words to friends in Europe:

“(It’s) … no bigger than a Hornet, yet hath all the dimensions of a Bird … bill … wings … quills, spider-like legges, small clawes: for colour she is glorious as a Raine-bow; as she flies she makes a little humming noise.”

Neither he nor his friends had seen anything like it in Europe – the hummingbird is strictly a New World bird.

Here in North America hummers are, for the most part, summer visitors. As nectar sippers, their passage is regulated by the blooming season of flowers. When midsummer brings on masses of red, tubular blossoms, you sometimes find hummingbirds in such numbers that they fill the air with a beelike hum. Or sometimes they come to find you.

In one of those stranger than fiction situations, we were sitting in the coach working on this column when a hummingbird zoomed up and peered inside our window. For a long moment she hovered there, beating her tiny wings at a blurry 80 beats per second. She didn’t offer to be interviewed or to criticize what we had written, so when her curiosity had been satisfied, she swooped back to her favorite perch in the tree. 

Other birds show curiosity, and some will gawk inside a house or motor coach – but none do it with the regularity of hummers. To some extent that’s probably because none can do it so easily. These little helicopters fly straight up and down, swing side to side, or shift into reverse, as easily as other birds follow a normal flight path.

It figures that a bird with that much maneuverability would be absolutely fearless. Brazen enough to take on any crow, hawk, or jay that sets wing inside their territory, these cantankerous hummers don’t even tolerate each other very well. Having been dive-bombed by the little creatures on numerous occasions, we can understand why large birds dodge the hummers’ needlelike bills.

One exception to the summer-only visitors is the Anna’s hummingbird. While we were living in southern California, this early breeder set up housekeeping in our courtyard tree, where she proceeded to build a nest – in December. When a frost wiped out both the nectar-bearing flowers and the insects, we had a crisis on our hands. A hummingbird must eat at least half its weight in food every day just to stay alive. We already had a feeder out, but the male insisted upon hoarding it for his own use. So Lowell created a personal-sized feeder out of a medicine bottle, filled it with syrup we concocted for hummingbirds, and stood outside in the courtyard.

“You’ll be there until Christmas waiting for that bird to feed from your hand,” the family skeptic insisted. A half-hour later a tiny, starving hummingbird was greedily sipping syrup.
“Momma” proved her skill as a hominid trainer by appearing at the window many, many times a day – ringing the dinner bell, as it were. She survived the cold snap, fledged her babies, and in due course moved elsewhere. For two succeeding winters she returned, announcing her presence by dive-bombing us in the garden or by hovering outside “her” window and waiting for the bottle.

The nest built by an Anna’s is quite typical of other hummingbirds. Only about as big as a quarter, decorated by lichens, and stitched to a twig with strands of spiderweb, they are so well camouflaged that unless you see the female fly to the nest, you’ll never spot it.

The female hummingbird is a drab little bit of feathers. This feature has survival value, since her dull plumage provides security while she incubates eggs on the nest, but even the male hummingbird looks colorless in the shade. The reason – hummingbird feathers lack pigment. Out of the sun, they appear gray, green, and black. Only when the sun’s rays shine directly on the male’s head and gorget will you see the bright red, green, blue, orange, and purple of these iridescent little jewels.

Not all the colors appear on any one hummingbird, however, and most of the 300-plus species don’t even occur north of the Mexican border. Fifteen species breed regularly in the United States, and just one, the ruby-throated, breeds in the eastern half of the country. The best place to see hummingbirds is in southeastern Arizona. Spend a few days camping in Madera Canyon south of Tucson (small rigs only, please) or in the Chiricahua Mountains north of Douglas, and you’ll have at least four species of hummingbirds zooming through your site.

To see hummers by the hundreds, go to Ramsey Canyon’s Mile-Hi Ranch near Sierra Vista, Arizona. The Nature Conservancy keeps the dozens of feeders filled now, but this feeding program goes back for decades. Here is where the greatest number and greatest variety of hummers appear. Here’s where birders from all over the world augment their life lists.

You don’t have to be a birder, of course, to enjoy these little acrobats as you travel. Hummingbird feeders are available almost anywhere you find hummingbirds; or you can make your own, of anything from glass bottles to Coke cans, just as long as they’re red. You don’t need to color the syrup, since hummers will be attracted to a red rim painted on the feeding spout. Scientists are concerned that food coloring may not be wholesome for hummingbirds that make syrup a large part of their diets.

The best proportion seems to be one part sugar (not honey, it spoils too fast) to four parts water. If bees and wasps keep the hummers away, rub salad oil around the spout. The oil repels insects, but not the hummingbirds.

With a feeder outside your window and your rig parked where hummingbirds are abundant, you’ll have quite a show. Dive-bombing, male hummingbirds flying loop-the-loop, shimmering little jewels peeking inside your window – where else can you find high-class entertainment for the price of a cup of sugar?


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