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All about Hummingbirds

By Lyn Kidder

Last updated on Wednesday, January 01, 2003

Allen's Hummingbird Photo by Dan True.
Allen's Hummingbird
A “glittering fragment of the rainbow” is how Aububon described the hummingbird. Part of summer in New Mexico is being dazzled and entertained by the antics of these little feathered bits of airborne jewelry.

Hummingbirds have the best of both worlds, spending the winter in Mexico and Central America and heading north for our glorious summer weather.

There are more than 300 species of hummingbirds worldwide. We have 14 species in New Mexico; the most common are the Rufous, Calliope and Broad-tailed. The Magnificent and the Blue-throated are more rare, but can also be seen.

You want to be ready when the first hummingbirds arrive. The mature males show up about a week ahead of the females and younger birds.

The males are on a scouting mission, staking out the best nesting territory they can find in order to impress a female with their ability as providers. It’s important to have feeders ready to catch the attention of this vanguard. There is evidence that hummingbirds return to the same feeder locations each year, but if they don’t find food, they will move on.

You can fill one feeder and put out several empty ones at the beginning of the season. This way you’re hanging out a sign that says, “Eat here.”

If you’re feeding hummingbirds for the first time this year, invest in a feeder with lots of gaudy red plastic. I never really believed the theory that hummingbirds are attracted to the color red - I put it in the same category as the red cape-bull connection. But I changed my mind the day my husband went into the garden wearing a pair of red plastic sunglasses and was nearly drilled between the eyes by a curious hummingbird. It’s true - hummingbirds do like red.

If you succeed in convincing a male that your backyard is perfect habitat, you may be lucky enough to host a breeding pair. To impress the female, the male puts on quite an aerial circus act, flying in an exaggerated U-shaped pattern and showing off his spectacular plumage. After mating, the male moves on, leaving the work of building the nest and raising the young to the female.

The nest is about the size of an English walnut shell, made of pieces of dried grass and other plant material, lined with down and all held together with spider webbing. The nests are almost impossible to spot, because of their size and also the camouflage that the female applies to it, using bits of lichen and even chips of flaking paint to make it blend with the surroundings.

The female lays two pinto bean-sized eggs that hatch after two weeks’ incubation. She spends the next three frenzied weeks feeding both herself and the hatchlings. As the young birds grow, the nest stretches, rather like a drawstring purse, with the opening kept small to conserve heat.

The young birds make short, experimental flights. I’ve watched juvenile hummingbirds make the rounds of hanging baskets of petunias on the deck of a restaurant. The little birds hung onto the blossoms, resting while they sipped.

Dan True, author of the book Hummingbirds of North America, recommends feeders with perches at altitudes above 6,000 ft. Thinner air provides less lift, and reduced oxygen tires flight muscles faster. Egg-bearing females seem to prefer feeders with perches, as do juveniles.

Anyone who has watched hummingbirds has noticed the almost comical aggressiveness of the tiny creatures. They not only chase each other away from feeders, but they will attack much larger birds. Their belligerence is doubtless due to their excessive need for food.

Hummingbirds have highest energy output per ounce of any warm-blooded creature. Crawford Greenewalt, author of the book Hummingbirds, makes the following comparison: A 170-pound man expends about 3,500 calories per day. During that same period, a hummingbird’s daily routine requires about 155,000 calories. Our average man consumes two to three pounds of food each day; to match the hummingbird’s energy output, he would need to eat 285 pounds of hamburger!

While feeders are the “fast food” of the hummingbird, flowers are what they really crave. A hummingbird visits the equivalent of 2,000 to 5,000 flowers each day. Flowers that attract hummingbirds include honeysuckle, trumpet vine, apple blossoms, thistle, penstemon and columbines. During years when moisture allows large numbers of flowers to bloom, hummingbirds are less dependent on feeders. Hummingbirds also consume spiders, gnats and other small insects as a protein source.

Male rufous hummingbird Photo by Dan True.
Male rufous hummingbird

The hummingbird’s unusual flying style is also fascinating. If other birds are airplanes, then the hummingbird is a helicopter, flying forward, sideways, up and down. It owes this ability to an unusual wing structure. If you discount the feathers, a bird’s wing is very much like a human arm in that it has a shoulder, elbow, wrist and hand. A hummingbird wing is all “hand,” with a very short upper and lower “arm,” and they are the only birds who cannot bend their wings at the elbow or wrist. The combination of a very flexible shoulder joint and comparatively huge flight muscles - 25 to 30 percent of the total body weight - make the bird’s characteristic flight possible. Migrating birds can reach top speeds of 20 to 25 miles per hour.

But the most spectacular feature of the hummingbird is its shimmering beauty. Audubon was not too far off in comparing them to a rainbow. The iridescent colors are due to structure rather than pigment; in other words, they are similar to prisms, the facets of a jewel or the colors of the rainbow. This is seen especially in an area around the throat called the “gorget.” (The same root word gives us “gorge” and “gorgeous,” two words that are appropriate in describing the bird.)

To see the colors, the bird must be facing the light, which must also be behind the observer - similar conditions for seeing a rainbow. When the bird changes position slightly, the colors disappear, or reappear in a brilliant flash.

Hummingbird identification is difficult even for experienced birders. The male Rufous is the easiest to identify - it's the only one with a rusty-red back. The Broad-tailed is the largest and noisiest, with its wingbeats making a loud trilling sound. The Magnificent and Blue-throated are both large, dark birds. The male Blue-throated has, appropriately, a blue throat that can be seen if the light is right.

Many people report success in "taming" hummingbirds to land on their shoulders or hands.

The birds are probably more confident than tame, certain that they can fly away quickly if there is any danger. But getting up-close views, or even trying to photograph them, is all part of the fun of living with these "fragments of the rainbow."

How to Feed Hummingbirds

You can buy powdered hummingbird food, or you can make your own by mixing four parts water to one part sugar (don't use honey or artificial sweeteners). Heat the mixture on the stove for several minutes to reduce fermentation, but don't let the mixture boil. Refrigerate surplus sugar water, and clean (with soap and water) and refill the feeders every two to four days when the weather gets hot. Forget the red food coloring: studies have linked it to digestive problems and liver tumors in hummingbirds.

The placement of the feeders is important. Hummingbirds need their fly space. They prefer feeders from which they can quickly fly backward, sideways and straight up. Feeders can be hung from a line stretched between poles or trees, or from brackets extending from the side of the house.

It seems excessive, but multiple feeders are the key to attracting and keeping lots of birds. A dominant male will chase off other birds. The trick is to have enough feeders so that he can't effectively guard them all. And a feeder set off from the others for the use of a female will encourage her to nest in the area.

Keep the feeders up until all the hummingbirds leave for the winter. Don't worry-they know when to migrate.

Discouraging bees: Reduce the sugar content to five parts water and one part sugar. The sugar content is still high enough for hummingbirds, but the bees get discouraged and leave. Bees are attracted to yellow, so removing or covering the yellow parts of your feeders will help, too.

Discouraging bears: Anita Powell of the Lincoln County Bird Club recommends hanging feeders high and taking them inside at night. But we all know that bears are hard to discourage. Bill Carr thought that he had the feeders high enough, until one afternoon when a mother bear and her two cubs strolled into the yard.

"She just reached up and gave the feeders a whack, and when they hit the ground the cubs ran up and grabbed them," he said.

But he has a plan for this year. "I'll try hanging the feeders with a rope and pulley. That should work," he said. "Maybe."

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