by Anne Drummond
It is 6 A.M. and only a tiny sliver of light on the eastern horizon to presage the dawn. There is 2 feet of snow on the ground and the temperature dropped to -8 C for the third night in a row. You are taking the freshly filled hummingbird feeders out to hang under the porch. As you move across the patio you hear the click-click and the soft whir of wings as the hummingbirds come out of the shrubs and alight on the feeder before you even hang it.
Tiny scraps of feather and bone and a heart capable of beating 1,250 times per minute, and the ability to go into a state of torpor where their hearts beat only 50 times per minute. Given their prodigious feats of endurance and survival, it is no wonder that these birds have been associated with powerful beliefs.
Hummingbirds have fascinated and inspired humans for many centuries and this is reflected in the mythologies and folklore of many societies. The Aztecs believed that hummingbirds were the reincarnation of warriors who had died in battle. Amongst many indigenous people of the Americas, the hummingbird is regarded as a messenger of hope and jubilation. A dream involving hummingbirds suggests your apparently insignificant ideas may possess much power and potential, so just perhaps your flights of fancy may have merit and deserve to be explored.
Hummingbirds are a New World species with the 338 different species found only in North and South America. In Victoria, we see the Rufous and Anna’s hummingbirds. Most Anna’s do not migrate, 15 years ago it was unusual to see one in the winter now they are regulars at winter feeders. Winter feeding does not discourage migration, Anna’s overwinter here because the winters in Victoria have become warmer over the last ten years, no doubt the presence of winter feeders helps the birds, however, Anna’s can be seen in forests far from the presence of feeders.
The Rufous hummingbird does migrate and has the longest migration of all birds relative to its size. They overwinter in Mexico and the Gulf states and breed from Washington state north into Alaska. Both males and females migrate but separately, though both show great consistency in the route they use from year to year.
In all hummingbird species both males and females set up and maintain territories, the males’ territory focusses on a stable food supply, while the females’ territory is centered around the availability of good nest sites. The males and females do not form a pair bond—so no joyful reunions after the long journey back from Mexico! Rather the males will mate with any female that comes into their territory, the females are then responsible for nest building, feeding, and rearing of the hatchlings.
The Rufous arrive in Victoria in late March or early April and breed until late May and usually have only one or two clutches per year. In contrast, the Anna’s, which overwintered here, start breeding at the end of January and on through till the end of May and will lay two or three clutches consecutively. All species lay just two eggs which take two weeks to hatch and another two weeks before they fledge. The nests are very well hidden, small cup-shaped, and disguised with fragments of lichen on the outside. The wall of the nest is lined with spider silk and can thus stretch as the young birds grow.
Hummingbirds were once considered to be exclusively nectarivorous, however, we now know that invertebrates are an important part of their diet providing many nutrients not found in nectar. Hummingbirds will eat almost any invertebrate that is small enough to swallow, for example, fruit flies, gnats, mosquitoes, aphids, spiders, maggots, caterpillars, ants, and insect eggs. Hummers are very resourceful foragers and employ a number of methods to hunt invertebrates including hawking (catching them in flight) and gleaning (searching the new leaves of trees and shrubs or the bark of trees where insects and eggs are picked from tiny crevices). Hummers also practice leaf rolling where they hover above leaves on the forest floor, wafts of air from their wings turn the leaves over and the birds pick off insects and eggs. Hummers will also poach insects from spiders webs and the insects attracted to sapsucker wells. Females also require calcium for eggs and the nestlings bone development so birds will be seen collecting beaks full of ash from fire pits and burn piles.
Hummingbirds consume nectar from a wide range of flowering plants and a single bird may visit between 1,000-2,000 different flowers in a day to supply their energy requirements. They have long tongues that extend well beyond their beaks and with the rapid flicking of their tongues can lap up nectar. There is no sucking involved rather, nectar moves up the grooved tongue by means of capillary action—the physical force that causes fluids to move through small diameter tubes.
Hummingbirds are major pollinators across their entire range as migrating birds follow the flowering of plants northwards in the spring and southwards in the fall. Many flower species have evolved floral shapes and colours that attract the hummingbirds. As endothermic (warm-blooded) pollinators they can be active in the cold spring of the west coast and play an important ecological role by guaranteeing fruit set for early flowering plants, like the Salmonberry, which in turn sustains bears and even wolves until more food becomes available.
Setting up hummingbird feeders is a wonderful way to observe these delightful birds however it should only be done with the birds’ safety and well being in mind.
The optimal position for a feeder is somewhere out of reach of cats, protected from rain and wind, and not too many hours of full sun. It is preferable that the feeder is at least 8 feet away from a window to prevent death by window strike. Nearby trees and shrubs provide shelter for birds to rest or wait a turn at the feeders. Male hummingbirds will defend a feeder as part of their territory during the breeding season, so if you have multiple feeders it is best to set them up some distance apart and preferably out of sight of each other, this gives more birds a chance to feed and reduces the male scuffles around the feeders.
Nectar from flowers contains between 12% and 25% sucrose so the solution in the feeder should be 1 cup white sugar and 4 cups water, using rapidly boiling water to kill any fungi/yeast cells that may be in the sugar. Cool before filling the feeder. If you do not have time to cool the solution, use one cup of boiling water to kill the yeast then top up with 3 cups cold water. Do not be tempted to put more sugar in the solution as it is both difficult for them to lap up and will cause hardening of the birds’ kidneys.
Feeders should be cleaned frequently depending on how many birds visit them, but at least once a week in the winter and every 2 to 3 days in the summer. Just use regular dish soap and water and rinse well. Never let the solution become cloudy as that indicates the presence of bacteria that will harm or kill the birds.
Never use anything else other than white sugar; do not use red dye or the commercial nectar preparations as they contain carcinogenic substances—a red feeder is sufficient to attract the birds. Also do not use honey as it ferments rapidly and can kill birds. Brown sugar contains iron which will poison the hummers, icing sugar contains cornstarch which ferments, and artificial sweetener has no calories.
If you don’t feel you can commit to maintaining feeders through the winter you should remove your feeders in September to give the birds a chance to find another food source for the winter. If you do maintain the feeders over the winter you will not only earn the gratitude of the birds but gain an insight into their remarkable tenacity and capacity to survive. Feeders will often freeze and people have developed many enterprising solutions to prevent this, from wrapping feeders with Christmas lights or insulated wrappings, or commercial heating elements. Have a spare feeder or two inside so if the feeder freezes during the day you can quickly exchange it for a warm feeder and let the other warm up inside. During the winter it is ideal to bring the feeders indoors at night, but only if you can take them back outside at dawn as the birds will be in dire need of the food after a long cold night. Sometimes the birds go into cold shock and will sit on the feeders stiff and unmoving and not feeding, or they may be on the ground. Pick them up gently and either warm them in your hand indoors or put them a large box (a 12 bottle wine box is the ideal size) with a hot water bottle in it for 10 minutes to warm up, then release them outdoors near the feeders.
And finally, a word of warning, be prepared to become very attached to ‘your’ hummingbirds.