Summer hummers – entertainment for free: part 2

In my yard this summer, the ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) came late to the feeders (similarly to what other people in the area had reported). Now, there are at least four vying for the four feeders, claiming territory for their own.

 

 

One bird in particular is most likely to be seen enjoying the garden flowers, including blue-black sage (Salvia guaranitica) and hot lips salvia (Salvia microphylla ‘Hot Lips’). In the first two photos below, you can see as his throat starts to bulge more as he sucks up the sweet nectar to complement his mostly insectivorous diet.

 

 

The airborne nectar droplets indicate that sometimes this hummer is a messy eater — or must leave quickly as another hummer is almost literally on its tail.

A couple of the birds spend a lot of time near the nectar feeders, perching close by to chase off anyone who comes near.

 

 

 

They each have favorite perching spots from which they can observe if an “intruder” is coming near the feeder they have claimed.

 

 

Sometimes, they fly up to a higher perch so they can see both the front and back yards – a necessary vantage point if they want to keep an eye on where everyone is.

 

Most ruby-throats have 940 feathers, all of which are replaced each year. As they take little rests, they stretch their feathers and may also groom them.

When a rival approaches, they spread their rectrices (tail feathers) – both when sitting and in the air.

 

Their feathers are beautifully arranged, looking like scalloped decorations.

 

They make frequent trips to the feeders and then occasionally “air out” their tongues.

 

The bill of the ruby-throated hummingbird is one of its most distinctive features. It measures about 0.59-0.79 in (15-20 mm) in length and is said to open no more than about 0.39 in (1 cm wide) at the tip. The hummers in my yard seem to be able to open their mouths to varying extents, however. They consume nectar by extending and contracting their tongues up to 13 times per second.

 

 

 

A quick, only few-second nap is also a frequent behavior. The hummers are almost constantly at the feeders and thus bulking up for their long migration, but they also expend considerable energy chasing one another away from feeders and flowers!

 

 

 

The hummers are not fazed by weather, zipping around rain or shine. Putting on weight and strength for their autumn migration down south is important for survival!

These minute marvels are such a pleasure to watch; I will certainly miss them when they begin their journeys to their wintering grounds.

 

My hummer summer, part 1 – guarding the home front!

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Just like human beings, some birds like to hang out in groups, while others are more solitary in nature, coming together mainly to reproduce. A prime example of the latter group are the ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris).

 

 

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a7336-maria-de-bruyn-res2This past summer, some health and other problems led to my spending a good deal of time at home. The upside was that being a bit home-bound gave me plenty of opportunities to observe the comings and goings of these gorgeous little flyers and to learn more about their behavior towards one another.

I had at least four ruby-throats – and probably more as I couldn’t distinguish them all – visiting my feeders and yard regularly. A couple had a distinctive trait that helped me identify them, like some white feathers on top of their heads or at the bottom part of their gorgets.

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I usually had three or four nectar feeders up in my back yard and two in my front yard. In addition, as the summer progressed, the gardens were filled with increasing numbers of nectar-filled flowers so my home site was a fairly well-stocked larder for them.

The ruby-throats are among the more competitive hummingbirds and don’t really like to share their feeding space with others, although a friend and I visited a birder in a nearby town who had more than a dozen feeders up and many dozens of hummers visiting his back yard every day, feeding right next to one another. At my house, I suppose guarding their food source is an instinctual imperative, since they do consume half their own weight in nectar each day.

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a0514-maria-de-bruyn-res

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a8255-maria-de-bruyn-resThe tiny birds were quite intent on protecting their territory from intruders. Only thing was, several of them considered my feeders THEIR territory, so there was a continual rotation of birds perched in nearby trees and shrubs to watch for “invaders”. Once spotted, the newly arrived hummers would have the current “resident” bird swoop down on them (at up to 60 miles per hour!), frequently chittering like mad as a warning to “get out of here.”

Sometimes, they would have a little “challenge flight ballet” as they confronted one another, until one gave up and flew off – sometimes across the street, sometimes to the yard on the other side of the house, and sometimes to a nearby tree or shrub at the side of the house.

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a8257-maria-de-bruyn-res   ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a8256-maria-de-bruyn-res

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a9443-maria-de-bruyn-resThere was one particular male hummer who seemed particularly aggressive – or perhaps possessive is a better term as I never saw him body slam a rival; he just made sure that the other bird would leave. I recognized him as he often chose exactly the same spots on a nearby Rose of Sharon, a willow oak and a cedar as his watching posts,

Some of those who were run off didn’t travel far, however. They would fly to a nearby tree or shrub and wait to see if Hummer No. 1 would leave.

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a0290-maria-de-bruyn-res       ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a1099-maria-de-bruyn-res

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a5725-maria-de-bruyn-resScientists have determined that the brain section responsible for memory and learning – the hippocampus – is five times larger in hummingbirds than in woodpeckers, seabirds and songbirds. They memorize where feeders and nectar flowers are and can remember when they last fed there. They can even estimate how long it will take each flower to fill up with nectar again.

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The hummers’ memory is long-term, too – they recall not only where feeders are placed in their breeding territories but also in places along their yearly migration routes! Wouldn’t it be nice if we had such great memories making GPS and maps less of a necessity?

 

 

 

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a7716-maria-de-bruyn-resAnother behavior I observed several times was a hummer hovering in front of me, especially when the nectar feeders were getting low. Scientists have determined that they can recognize the people who replenish their food sources, which makes for a delightful encounter as one chirps at you while suspended in front of your face with its wings flapping at 60 beats per second!

While guarding their home turf, they may stick out their tongues briefly after feeding.

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However, if you see one with its tongue stuck out permanently, this can be a sign of a fungal infection (often acquired from dirty feeders). Their tongues swell with the infection and they can no longer drink with these anatomical, elastic micro-pumps.

 

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Often death ensues, so it’s important to keep the nectar feeders clean!

 

 

 

Coming up in part 2: the beauty of the hummingbirds at rest and in flight

 

The dance of the sandhill cranes

sandhill crane I77A7926© Maria de Bruyn resDuring my trip to Yellowstone National Park, I had the privilege of seeing what birders call “lifers” – bird species that one sees for the first time. One spectacular sighting – for me – was of sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis). I didn’t spot them first; I was traveling with two photographers from Michigan who were used to seeing these beautiful birds in their backyards. We had already passed but they kindly returned so I could take a few photos – and then to our delight, the pair of birds performed their mating dance for us!

These birds mate for life and may live to a considerable age. The oldest known sandhill crane was 36.5 years old.

sandhill crane I77A7910© Maria de Bruyn resWhile many of these birds are grayish in color, some have rusty orange coloring, attributable to iron-rich mud in their environment. In Yellowstone, the birds use their long bills to spread the reddish mud over their feathers when they preen and this helps to camouflage them when nesting. Cranes that are not yet mature also have reddish upper parts. Their heads are topped by a red patch.

 

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These birds have very long legs and necks as you can see. Their windpipes curl up in the sternum and give their sounds a lower pitch. Mated pairs will sing in unison, with the female calling twice for every call that her mate makes.

 

 

The males dance when they display to one another. Courtship dances can involve bowing followed by leaps into the air. They may stretch their wings and pump their heads as well.

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The pair would dance and stop, dance and stop. A real pas de deux (in French and ballet terms)!

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Perhaps some ballet terminology was inspired (unconsciously) by the graceful cranes.

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Grand jeté (jump from one foot to the other)

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Sur les pointes (on tiptoes)

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Demi-plié (Half-bend of the knees)

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Fondu (sinking down)

Dancers have tried to mimic cranes and while they created a beautiful dance, the sandhill cranes had more varied moves.

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The courtship dance was a tour de force and a highlight of my first day at this national park. In hindsight, I wish I had taped it but I was so enthralled, I forgot. 🙂

 

Delight in small packages

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Ruby-throated hummingbird IMG_6085©Maria de BruynOne bird that seems to almost universally delight people and bring smiles to their days are the hummingbirds. These wonderful little fliers now only live in the Western hemisphere of our earth, but two 30-million-year-old hummingbird fossils were discovered in Germany so they did live elsewhere.

There are more than 300 species – some very, very colorful and some with gorgeous long tails or long curved beaks. Central and South America have spectacular species and one of the Nazca line drawings in Peru depicts a hummingbird. Only eight species breed in the United States.

Here in Chapel Hill, I’ve had the pleasure to see two species – the ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) and the rufous hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus). The ruby-throated (named for the male’s brilliant neck feathers) are here in spring, summer and fall and then they migrate further south, crossing the 500 miles (800 km) of the Gulf of Mexico in one non-stop flight!

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The rufous species migrates here from further up north in the wintertime; they will go as far as Alaska to spend the winter and can tolerate below freezing temperatures.rufous hummingbird IMG_1789 M de Bruynrufous hummingbird IMG_2022 MdB

Ruby-throated hummingbird IMG_7541©Maria de BruynRESThe smallest bird species is the Bee hummingbird, which weighs less than a cent coin. On average, the ruby-throated hummingbird weighs less than a US five-cent coin.

They flap their little wings about 50 times per second but increase this to as much as 200 wing beats per second. This rapid motion makes a humming sound, which varies according to the species. Their quick flight allows them to hover as well as fly backwards and upside down.

 

ruby-throated hummingbird IMG_3498Ruby-throated hummingbird male IMG_5433©Maria de Bruyn res

 

ruby-throated hummingbird IMG_3293 MdBTheir little feet help them perch but they cannot hop or walk on them.

These little birds need to eat about half their weight in sugar every day, which is why you see them returning to feeders quite often. When there is not enough food, they can go into a hibernation-like state, slowing their metabolism to 1/15th of its normal rate.

Their hearts can beat as quickly as 1260 beats per minute and they take 250 breaths per minute, even when they are sitting still!

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Hummingbirds do not suck up nectar but quickly lap it up with tIMG_5526©Maria de Bruynheir tongues, which have tubes running down their lengths.

To ensure they have enough food, they can sometimes defend their feeding areas vigorously against other hummers that they consider intruders. This happens a lot at my feeders but they are so fast that it’s very difficult to get good shots of it.

 

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They eventually will tolerate others in their vicinity (sometimes). They live 3-12 years and perhaps the ones they don’t mind having around are related.

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It is better not to put food dyes into nectar and brown or raw sugar should not be used to prepare it as these types of sugar contain iron, which can kill hummingbirds if they get too much over a certain period of time. They like sugar water with 25% sugar, although apparently nectar with 35% sugar is even more to their liking.

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I have yet to find a hummingbird nest made with spider silk and lichens in my yard but hope to see one in the future so that I can say I’ve not only seen the biggest bird egg (ostrich) but also the smallest!

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