Home & Garden: Enjoy the fiesty hummingbirds
WILD ABOUT BIRDS
Free Press Home & Garden Columnist
They’re back! I am talking about the orneriest bird of its size; one that is very protective of its feeder; one that chases other birds from its feeder; and one that chases all birds from similar feeders in the whole backyard. Yes, I’m talking about the Rufous Hummingbird.
There are 18 hummingbird species in North America. Hummingbirds are found nowhere else in the world except the New World (North, Central, and South America.) In the New World, there are over 325 species of hummingbirds, making them the second largest bird family in the world, second only to flycatchers.
Hummingbirds weigh 1/10th of an ounce, about the weight of a penny. Hummingbirds’ brains are about the size of a BB and their hearts are larger proportionally to their body than any other bird or mammal. They have such underdeveloped legs that they are unable to walk well. A mother hummingbird weighs only about eight times more than her egg and lay the world’s smallest bird egg. Hummingbirds generally lay two eggs, each about the size of a blueberry or jelly bean.
Hummingbirds use spider webs as glue to attach the nest to a tree branch and as a binding agent for the building materials. The nest is about the size of a golf ball; around 1 ½ inches in diameter. Being made of spider webs, the nest works well for protecting the babies. As the babies grow, the nest expands to accommodate their size and holds them securely in the nest.
Hummingbirds eat about every 10 minutes. They learn to associate flower colors, like red, with food. They do not have an innate preference for red. I think they may be more attracted to red flowers as there happens to be more nectar-bearing flowers that are red, but they are attracted to any brightly colored flower.
Hummingbirds can drink up to twice their body weight in nectar every day (most birds only eat ¼ – ½ their body weight). They drink nectar from plants and sugar water from feeders. Hummingbirds lap up nectar with their long tongues. There is a groove on either side of the tongue that creates a capillary action to help draw the nectar up the tongue and into the mouth during the lapping action. Hummingbirds can extend their tongue approximately a distance equal to the length of their bill. While lapping up nectar, Hummingbirds can move their tongues in and out of their bill at a rate of up to 12 times a second.
For protein, they eat insects and insect eggs on the ground and in trees. They love spiders and spider eggs and use their bill (not their tongue) to catch insects.
Hummingbirds can fly up to 60 miles per hour, but typically fly at 30-45 miles per hour. They can hover and are the only birds able to fly backwards and upside down. They can do this because of an extremely mobile shoulder joint. Their wings beat 20-80 times per second. The flight muscles of a hummingbird are 25-30 percent of their body weight compared to other birds at 15-25 percent.
Hummingbirds will bathe in shallow water sources like natural pools or dishes, and enjoy “showering” in sprinklers and misters. To keep their feathers in top shape, hummingbirds will leaf-bathe by fluttering against wet leaves.
Now back to the Rufous Hummingbirds. It’s the feistiest hummingbird in North America. The brilliant orange male and the green-and-orange female Rufous Hummingbird are relentless attackers at flowers and feeders, going after (if not always defeating) even the large hummingbirds of the Southwest, which can be double their weight. Rufous Hummingbirds are wide-ranging, and breed farther north than any other hummingbird. Look for them in spring in California, summer in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, and fall in the Rocky Mountains as they make their annual circuit of the West.
The Rufous Hummingbird is a common visitor to hummingbird feeders. It is extremely territorial at all times of year, attacking any visiting hummingbird, including much larger species. They’ve even been seen chasing chipmunks away from their nests.
So, how do you defeat their aggressive behavior? The only thing that seems to work is to put out multiple hummingbird feeders located such that they can’t be guarded all at once. It is sometimes difficult to beat them so you might as well enjoy their antics.
Thank you to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for some of the information used in this article.
Local bird expert and GJ Free Press columnist Larry Collins owns Wild Birds Unlimited, 2454 Hwy. 6&50, which caters to folks who want the best backyard bird-feeding experience possible. Email your bird-feeding and birding questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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