Here’s my buzz
Recently, our cheap plastic humming bird feeder broke as I washed it out. Fortunately this happened in the mid-day heat and siesta time for the humming birds. I still had time to go to Ace Hardware for a new one before they awoke.
There seems to be a proprietary war over humming birds on our street. Everyone has at least one feeder and these are big luxury ones too. Hand-blown glass, 10 or more feeding portals and a comfy perch requiring non of that sucking and buzzing dual action.
I often wondered why the little buzzers even bothered with my old no-perch, three-flower cheapo-plastic feeder. I guess the high-octane sugar water really works. I’d jacked the sweetness up and the word was out.
Gangs of humming birds dueled and jousted for the street pure sugar my feeder put down. Sure I felt guilty about overdosing them, half expecting one to explode from excess energy as it peeled away, but I had to compete.
I got them a new but tastefully restrained glass feeder with perch. Now I’d be on an equal footing if I didn’t annoy them by not having it ready when they awoke for their evening snack.
Humming birds have good memories and hold a grudge. A friend left his empty for a week and now none visit him. He’s beginning to hate them as he listens to the joyous trills and fighting clicks of birds at all his neighbors’ feeders.
Soon my new feeder hung from the tree over the deck and hosted its first visitors. It took awhile for them to get over that new-feeder taste and use the perch, but I’ve got my “stare out into space” entertainment back again.
I can watch them all day, they’re so cool. All wild things are. Almost everything in our lives, our books, our TV shows, our sports, our cars are constructs of man. Pets are sort of halfway with one foot (or two feet) in each world, but hummingbirds definitely aren’t here because of us. Little wild beasts, part of a whole other world are visiting my deck and doing their thing.
The males engage in noisy U-shaped dives, buzzing the females to impress them. They chase other males in spectacular stop-and-go sequences. The perch opens up subtle new behaviors. Some birds remain strict traditionalists, insisting on hovering while they drink. Others alight on the perch, but either they lack balance or don’t trust this newfangled invention and keep the wings ticking over just in case. Others, the fat ones, plant their feet and settle in for a relaxed slurp at the nectar bar.
The perch slows them down and allows me to identify them. I have rufous, broad tailed and perhaps calliopes visiting. There is a definite pecking order. Rufous kick broadtails away and both pick on the peaceful calliope. Males also boss the females around. Females can have tough times in droughts getting enough food for themselves and babies and will on cold nights save energy by semi hibernating.
A hummingbird needs about half its body weight in nectar a day. Birds sitting on the perch appear to be more live and let slurp. Whether this is because flying and chasing becomes too much of a bother or they can’t see across the feeder, only they know. If five birds are vying for a turn, then all feeder territorialism stops. One bird can’t possibly chase all the others away, so instead they take turns.
Hoping to get a competitive edge on my neighbors, I read up on and discovered that if we like these buzzing little iridescent flashes, we’d be better off working together creating good humming bird habitat.
The nectar doesn’t make the difference; it’s a bonus. All those expensive red powders, the bird doesn’t care. In fact as long as the feeder is red, most birds prefer clear sugar/water mixes made form ordinary white sugar, 3 – 5 parts water to 1 part sugar. Who knows what effect all that red food dye has over time.
Humming birds are surprisingly long-lived. A banded female broad tail returned to the same neighbor hood for 12 years. Keeping your habitat welcoming and safe is more important than luxury feeders.
Hummingbirds love flowers, so stock your garden with penstemon. larkspurs, columbines, honeysuckles, red hot pokers. They eat a lot of insects, and pesticide use poisons them.
Trees provide perches for digesting all that sugar and looking out for predators or rival birds to chase off. They need dense bushes for warmth at night and hiding their nests in. They will use their nests over and over and they’re made from moss bound by spider webs. Their nests can be low and vulnerable to those subsidized predators, house cats.
Free roaming cats are not good for humming birds. Our dogs sleep on the deck below the feeder, providing adequate cat deterrent. The neighborhood cats are smart enough to understand that food chains work both ways.
Hummingbirds in Colorado are migrants; they’re passing through. The biggest threat to migratory birds is habitat destruction along any part of the route. You need gas stations at regular intervals when you drive; it’s the same for birds. That’s a strong argument for conservation measures to cross counties, states and borders.
The rufous hummingbird migrates up the West Coast to Alaska in March, April, May and is now starting to come back down again through the Rockies, aiming to winter in Mexico. Alaska to Mexico is 2,700 miles, a long way for a bird 4 inches long.
I sure appreciate watching them. The least I can do is provide some basic hospitality.
Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.