The birds of summer

Ruby throated hummingbird   Dan Pancamo/Flickr

Ruby throated hummingbird   Dan Pancamo/Flickr

 Of all the creatures that share our love of flowers, the hummingbird has got to be the most marvelous – and the most entertaining.

The smallest of birds (about the size of your pinkie), these little guys speed around on a blur of wings examining everything in their surroundings with a keen intelligence and a feisty attitude. The humming part? It’s the noise of their rapidly vibrating wings, beating as fast as 55 to 65 times a second, which makes them sound like a bumblebee on steroids or a tiny aircraft powered by tightly-wound rubber bands.

While many people consider a glimpse of a single hummingbird to be a fluke – a random and unexpected event – devoted fans learn how to lure them in and keep them coming back. By midsummer, they are around all day every day at my place, attracted by nectar-rich flowers and my excellent home cooking.

Yes, I cook for the birds, making a simple sugar solution in the microwave for the two nectar feeders that hang from the eaves of my screen porch. The correct formula is one part plain table sugar to four parts ordinary tap water, with a quick zap helpful in dissolving the sugar crystals. I make a couple of cups at a time and store it in the refrigerator in a recycled water bottle.   

I see no point in having feeders where you can’t comfortably keep them under surveillance so having them immediately outside the porch screens is ideal. It isn’t just that I get to watch the hummers lapping up nectar with their long, skinny tongues – it’s the interaction between birds that makes this an action sport. They don’t take pleasure in the company of their own kind.

Territorial combat, including high-speed chases and a great deal of indignant squeaking, is a hallmark of hummingbird behavior and part of what makes hummingbird-watching so amusing. One will stake out the feeder from a high perch, and dive-bomb any interlopers, sometimes to the point of physical contact. I’ve seen one knock another clean out of the air. It’s the battle of the birds, wrought small.

The birds in question are ruby-throated hummingbirds, the only species commonly seen east of the Mississippi and the only species that breeds here during the summer months. Ruby-throats are named for the prismatic red collar or gorget of the males, which flashes like a jewel when caught by the light. The females are a plainer green with an unmarked white breast.

The hummer has one of the fastest metabolisms in the animal kingdom, steaming along at 10 times the rate of an elephant’s. It needs to feed about every 10 minutes and may visit as many as a thousand flowers in a day. This constant hunger is actually an advantage for human observers who want to see them up close, a hook to hang your hopes on.

When you provide a feeder with constantly replenished quantities of “nectar,” birds learn they have a ready source of energy food and visit it regularly. Tiny as they are, hummers have the largest brain of any bird in relation to total body weight. Their memory is sharp enough that they take note of and remember food sources – not only from day to day, but from season to season. 

So, the longer you work at attracting these critters, the more you are likely to see. I’ve been feeding the hummingbirds for about 10 years and can now predict that they will return on or about April 30 and visit every day until mid September. I miss them when they leave for their long journey south to wintering grounds in central Mexico and Panama. Incredibly, these little sprites make a non-stop crossing of the Gulf of Mexico, something like 525 miles with neither food nor rest.

If you have decent habitat – and this may exclude the beaches and the inner cities – try hanging a small feeder. Bee guards, crosshatched plastic covers for the feeding ports, are essential to keep wasps and bees from reaching the nectar and making nuisances of themselves. Red ribbons tied on shrubs and fences in the vicinity may help catch a hummingbird’s sharp little eye.

The other morning I saw that rare thing, two birds calmly perched on one feeder. Just when I thought we might have somehow achieved a more peaceable kingdom, the birds caught sight of one another, leaped into the air with tails flaring, and the chase was on, complete with furious chittering, as they sped away. Maybe they could  just get along, but it wouldn’t be quite the same.