Hummers – The Bringers of Summer

The little Hucklings would somehow manage to sit motionless for even more than a minute, transfixed by the magic and antics of our “Zoom birdies!” as they dropped in to enjoy, guard, harass or drink from the feeders we so carefully filled and placed. Those tiny hummers seemed always to be the bringers of the joy, excitement and laughter of summer.

If the reports of active hummingbirds around Paradise are any indication, we may yet have a summer. Thank goodness for those faithful hummers.

Hummer time is circus time, of course. A rufous male dive-bombs some kid standing too close to “his” feeder and makes a life-long memory. A hummer dances up to an evening feeder and a quiet meal at dusk becomes a celebration. A young bird, startled at the feeder, somersaults into a rolling escape maneuver and the awe of that moment becomes family legend. Really, what is more cool than the zippy up, down, back, forth or “stop!” of these tiny aerialists?

We generally see three hummingbirds here in Paradise, and the Science Education Subcommittee of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association requires that I pass along the following information. The two‑and‑a‑half‑inch calliope (Stellula calliope) is the smallest of U.S. birds, and the male is the only hummer whose throat is streaked, with red-colored feathers against white. The black-chinned (Archilochus alexandri) is the only North American hummer with a truly black throat. Rufous (Selasphorus rufus) is named after the male’s solid rusty‑colored back.

These tiny birds traveled thousands of miles, from wintering in Mexico and Central America. The males were first, with most females now on scene. The circus is underway now, as the birds choose mates with whom to make more hummingbirds. Sit tight and you will see some of the avian world’s most amazing courtship rituals.

The black‑chinned, to charm some feathered beauty, will swing pendulum‑like before her, then rise 15 feet, hover, and drop with a whizzing noise. The rufous is a real show‑off, often flying complete ovals before his prospective mate, then diving to face her from inches away. At the bottom of his dive comes that unmistakable trademark “whine” of air rushing through wing feathers. The tiny calliope male plays the daredevil, climbing 65 feet or so before swooping down before his love. After a short “bzzt,” he does it again.

Once love is in bloom, inch and a half camouflaged nests of spider web silk and cattail fluff may hold a couple white eggs the size of grapefruit seeds. 15 to 18 days later, the young will hatch. After three weeks on insects, they’ll be in line at the feeder, or catching tiny insects on the wing.

Hummingbirds go through nectar like jet fuel. (Only four parts water to each part white sugar in an always-clean feeder, please.) In flight, their wings beat up to 80 times a second, and their hearts more than 1200 times per minute. To hover, they hold their bodies at a 45‑degree angle and move their wings in a sideways figure eight pattern. A hummer may feed 15 times an hour, and visit 1,000 flowers a day. At night, both metabolism and heartbeat will slow enough for the tiny bird to survive until morning.

Studies have shown that hummers may take in five times their normal body weight in insects and nectar, each day, to fuel their high metabolic rates. (For us that’s about 125,000 calories, or 220 big chocolate shakes.) Urine production in this process is 75 to 80 percent of body weight. (Think 15-20 gallons a day for us!)

In August and September, even with still-full feeders, our hummers will head south in response to photoperiodism – changing length of daylight. They will return to wintering grounds in Mexico and Central America. Some will apparently fly across the Gulf of Mexico. Given their food needs, how they do that is a big mystery. (Jennie Miller, writing for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology offers this comparison: “Imagine circling the Earth twice on foot while drinking your weight in flower nectar each day…the human equivalent of what Calliope Hummingbirds do, by wing, twice a year, in their migrations between Washington and Mexico.”) Some researchers want to put tracking chips in a few of them, but even microchips are huge to a bird weighing a fraction of an ounce. Citizen science observations are now revealing migration routes. It seems that hummers take a slightly different routes each year (perhaps related to food).

Learn more about our bringers of summer. At www.hummingbirds.net, Lanny Chambers’ site, you will find great migration maps, cool videos, great photos, new science and information about hummer festivals all over the country. At www.hummingbirds.net/states.html you will find info by state and province across North America.  More locally, wdfw.wa.gov/wlm/backyard/humming-facts.htm has DFW’s tips for attracting and maintaining hummers in backyards around the state. The Cornell Lab, at www.allaboutbirds.org, has an exhaustive library of information about hummers from all over the world; just punch in the one you want to explore first.

Go watch. Then, next winter, be warmed by memories of ordinary summer evenings made extraordinary by hummers’ whistling, trilling dances of up and down, back and forth and STOP!

Welcome to summer in Paradise.

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized

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