“Hummingbirds Trust Us!

Here they come again, our jewels of the sky! Tiny hummingbirds, the smallest of all birds, who migrate from their winter stay in Central America or the Caribbean are easily attracted to backyard feeders and gardens. Most bird enthusiasts agree they are a joy to watch, and these little buzzers become easy to love! They are called hummingbirds because they generate a humming sound when they beat their wings up to 80 flaps per second. They are also extremely fast flyers that shoot through the sky like a dart. They have been clocked at 34 mph while flying and 49 mph while diving. Ruby-Throated and Rufous hummingbirds, which are the types of HBs that frequent North Carolina, generally return to territories where they were born and raised and where food is not difficult to find. Most hummers are 3 to 5 inches in length and weigh less than .07 of an ounce. Flying in the rain is a big deal and can be dangerous when you consider the weight of rain drops relative to a light weight hummingbird. Collectively, rain drops may weigh 38% of the bird’s total body weight causing them to shift their bodies and tails horizontally, beat their wings even faster than normal and reduce their wings’ angle of motion when flying in heavy rain. Scientists have videoed hummingbirds shaking their heads like a dog to shed rain water while flying. Hummingbirds have the greatest mass-specific metabolic rate of any homeothermic animal. To conserve energy when food is scarce and during the night when they are not foraging, they can go into torpor a physical state similar to hibernation. Torpor slows their metabolic rate to 1/15th of its normal rate. This will prevent them from starving to death. If we humans choose, and many of us do, to take on the responsibility of providing supplemental nutrition and fuel for hummingbirds, we must be diligent about keeping their feeder clean and scrubbed free of bacteria or mold and ensure the nectar or sugar solution is replaced routinely, especially in warm weather because the solution has the tendency to spoil. When hummingbirds are enticed by feeders we provide, they trust us and will return time and time again to the opportunity of supplemental fuel you have provided. BUT dirty feeders and rancid nectar will kill hummingbirds. So, you see, there is a significant commitment of time, energy and attention to detail we must make to ensure “we are not loving them to death.” Hummingbirds will succumb to a fatal fungal infection when exposed to dirty feeders. If you have hummingbirds feeding on your deck, there’s a good chance the females have babies in a tiny cup of a nest somewhere close by. They can easily carry bacteria and fungus to their hatchlings if picked up from your feeder. Always inspect your feeder carefully for black mold or fungus and take them completely apart to check every nook and cranny where mold can hide. Wash the feeder parts thoroughly with bleach or a vinegar and water solution. Then rinse with clear, hot tap water. It is best not to use soap because soap leaves a residue. Lots of folks hang hummingbird feeders in the Spring, so it would be a good idea to pass the word to your neighbors to ensure they are paying attention to the cleanliness of their feeder as well. If you are providing artificial nectar, white granulated sugar and water is best in a solution of one-part sugar to four parts water. There is no need to add food coloring. It’s best to boil the mixture, then let it cool to room temperature before filling your feeder. Boiling the water helps prevent fermentation of the solution. Do not use organic or raw sugars which contain harmful iron. Brown sugar, agave syrup, molasses, artificial sweeteners and honey are also on the Do-Not-Use list as they are breeding grounds for microorganisms that cause rapid spoilage. A hummingbird has a very long, forked tongue equipped with tubes that engage in a pump action when nectar is reached. Nectar is a mixture of glucose, fructose and sucrose and is not the best source of nutrients required to live a healthy hummingbird life, so hummingbirds also eat many insects, including mosquitoes, fruit flies, gnats, aphids and spiders to meet their nutritional needs. Their flexible beak can bend 25 degrees, enabling them to catch insects with ease. On occasion, hummingbirds will hover within insect swarms to facilitate feeding. This method is called “hover-hawking.” Flowers provide a sweet liquid nectar too, but hummingbirds are very particular and will reject flowers that produce nectar that is less than 10 percent sugar and prefer those with a higher sugar content. They love their sweets! However, we do not want to exceed the one to four parts solution we provide them, because two much sugar can cause their internal organs to shut down. It appears that only the female is involved in building a nest and raising baby hummers. A tiny hummingbird nest is constructed in a crook of a tree with materials such as spider silk and lichen. This combination allows the nest to expand as the youngsters grow. Usually, only two white eggs are laid. Incubation occurs for 14 to 23 days and after hatching, momma hummingbird will conscientiously attend to the feeding needs and warmth required of the little ones. Two hatchlings is a low count for a bird, but the theory is because the female is on her own to care for her brood, two is all she can manage to feed and keep warm at one time. Lives are on the line out there, so we must do what we can to ensure Mom and those babies stay well and healthy. Hummingbirds trust that the nectar we provide them is good stuff! These little summer sparklers thank us daily for our gifts of fuel and care with their beauty, charm, remarkable aerial displays and quirky antics. Let’s not let them down! Keep those hummingbird feeders clean!

Best Always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them ALL”

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