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Bird lovers abuzz over high counts of hummers

Dennis Webb
News Editor

Entering Michelle Ballinger’s backyard in Glenwood Springs is like visiting a school cafeteria at lunch time.

Hungry souls madly dart to and fro, eating as if it’s their last meal, and making a noisy racket in the process.

But these aren’t famished kids. They’re hummingbirds.

Lots and lots of hummingbirds.

“We had about 75 the other night when we were out here,” Ballinger said, as she kept her eyes trained on her favorite feathered friends.

They whistle and whirl and flit about in an iridescent frenzy. Ruby-throated hummingbirds, orange rufouses and colorful calliopes – at 3 inches long, the smallest hummers in the United States – all fight for space at the feeder.

“Aren’t they cool? They’re just so cool,” Ballinger said.

Cool they may be, but hummingbirds have faced a long, hot summer, just like the rest of us. And it appears to be manifesting itself in a higher-than-normal number of birds visiting feeders in Glenwood Springs and other mountain towns.

Last year, Ballinger filled her two six-hole feeders and one eight-holer with 20 cups of food every other day. This year, she’s going through the same amount every day.

Her daughter, Wendy Vanderhoof, also of Glenwood Springs, began feeding them this year.

“She said, `Mom, I can’t believe how many birds I have,'” said Ballinger.

Larry Collins, owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Grand Junction, which sells bird seed, feeders, bird baths and other supplies, has heard lots of reports of high hummingbird counts in Parachute, Rifle, Carbondale, Ridgway, Cedaredge and Glenwood Springs.

“They’re kind of like gnats or mosquitoes, just tons of them up there,” he said.

Grand Junction is seeing fewer hummers than normal because it is at a lower elevation and the birds are escaping to where it is cooler, he said.

Some of the wildflowers that hummingbirds rely on for nectar have been lost to drought and wildfire, resulting in more of them turning to feeders, Collins said.

These feeders are proving to be an important source of nutrition this summer, but in general their role is secondary to natural, vitamin-filled flower nectar, Collins said.

Backyard feeders enable hummers “to get a real quick hit so they don’t have to work as hard at times,” he said.

Drought and fire also have hurt another important food source for hummingbirds – insects. Collins said they eat gnats, mosquitoes and other small insects as a source of protein, catching the insects with a tongue twice as long as their bills.

Fires also presumably destroyed some hummingbird nests, along with baby birds that were unable to escape the flames, said Collins. But the birds have a couple of broods a year, he said.

“We may have lost a generation or two but there’s still enough of them out there that we don’t have to worry about them going on the endangered species list or anything like that,” he said.

That’s certainly not a concern if Ballinger’s backyard is any indication.

“It would be nice not to have a drought, but I like to have all these hummers, too,” she admitted a little sheepishly.

Sometimes she’s had so many that she’s had two birds drinking from a single feeder hole.

Ballinger recognizes the importance of hummers having natural food sources.

“I think that’s always the best, but I always like to feed them and watch them,” she said. “I’ve fed them my whole life – really since I was a young child.”

She was born in Rangely and raised in Bluff, Utah, and her father had aviaries in both towns.

She moved in 1981 from Wyoming to Glenwood Springs, where she lives with her husband, Bob.

“In Glenwood we’ve always had a lot of (humming)birds, more than anywhere we’ve lived,” she said.

She believes she gets some of the same birds coming back each year.

“I think they even followed me from Wyoming,” she said with a laugh.

Ballinger’s happy to see, in her daughter, another generation of her family getting excited about hummingbirds.

“I like to see people enjoying them because they’re just such a cool little bird,” Ballinger said.

Collins said hummers have a lot of human fans in western Colorado. His store serves as a source of information on birds in general, and he observes, “There are more questions on hummingbirds than probably all the other birds combined.

“People really seem to like them; they’re probably the most popular bird.”


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