According to a recently published report entitled 2022 State of the Birds, the rufous hummingbird population is in decline. The rufous hummingbird has lost half its total population during the past 50 years. In addition, there is a very real chance that it will plummet another 50 percent during the next half century.
The rufous hummingbird nests primarily in Washington and Oregon, north through Canada’s western provinces all the way to southeastern Alaska.
The vast majority of rufous hummingbirds’ winter in Mexico, however, for decades many have annually wintered in the Southeast. In fact, it is the most commonly seen hummingbird during the winter in Georgia.
I try to keep abreast of what the wildlife eats throughout the year. This exercise has allowed me to watch how the food habits of a number of my backyard residents change throughout the year. Recently I was reminded of this fact as I watched a northern mockingbird dine on pokeberries.
Throughout the spring and much of the summer mockingbirds I watched them dining on suet, insects, blackberries, and other delicacies. Then seemingly, overnight birds seemed to abandon the places where they had been feeding. Last week they reappeared at pokeweeds that have colonized my property. The birds were dining on the plants’ juicy, purplish-black berries. While I have only seen mockingbirds eating the berries so far this summer, I suspect they have to share them with other backyard residents such as brown thrashers, eastern bluebirds, cardinals and even red-bellied woodpeckers.
The first time I witnessed a mockingbird eating pokeberries a couple of weeks ago the bird was having a difficult time plucking them from a cluster of fruit dangling from a droopy branch. Since it was seemingly impossible for the bird to perch on the flimsy branch and dine of the berries at the same time, it was forced to attempt to hover close to the berries. It immediately became obvious that the mockingbird’s ability to hover will never be favorably compared with that of a hummingbird. In spite of this, after several tries grab the berries, the cluster of berries eventually disappeared into the mouth of the determined bird.
If you find pokeberry plants sprouting in an out-of-the-way spot in your yard, let them grow. If you do, you will be rewarded with an attractive plant, and a great source of food for birds and other wildlife. In addition, you will be offered with some great wildlife viewing opportunities and the chance to learn more about the feeding habits of wildlife without having to leave your home.
During the past few days, the number of ruby-throated hummingbirds visiting our feeders has noticeably decreased. Whereas less than a week ago clouds hummingbirds were constantly swirling about backyard feeders, now a handful of birds are visiting them. Indeed, the hummingbird migration is in full swing.
When most of the birds vanish at the same time, it is easy to believe they migrate in flocks like robins, ducks, geese, and a host of other species. However, the truth of the matter is each bird migrates on its own. This means a rubythroat raised in your backyard this year does not have an older and more experienced bird to guide it on its first migration flight to its wintering ground in southern Mexico and Panama.
How is this possible? Biologists have still not unlocked this secret. Consequently, the best way to explain it is that hummingbirds migrate by instinct.
We have long been aware that hummingbirds have great eyesight and hearing. However, biologists have unable to demonstrate that hummingbirds could smell. However, recent studies conducted by researchers at the University of California Riverside have revealed for the first time that hummingbirds can smell insects that pose a danger to them while they are visiting flowers bearing nectar. The findings also suggest that this ability helps them avoid danger while feeding.
According to Erin Wilson Rankin, associate entomology professor and coauthor author of the paper that was published in the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, “This is pretty exciting, as it is the first clear demonstration of hummingbirds using their sense of smell alone to make foraging decisions and avoid contact with potentially dangerous insects at a flower or feeder.”
The experiment was deceptively simple. They provided more than 100 hummingbirds the option of feeding at two feeders. One feeder contained sugar water and another filled with sugar water and additives that indicated that an insect was present. One additive was formic acid which is produced by some Formica ants. This chemical is known to be harmful to humans and mammals alike. The other was an ant attraction chemical. Another chemical tested was a chemical left behind when a European honeybee visits flowers.
The hummingbirds seemed oblivious to the honeybee-generated chemical. However, the birds avoided food laced with both of the ant-based chemicals.
Since all of the feeders were identical, the only way that the birds could differentiate between the feeders was through their sense of smell.
It seems like every few years we learn something new and fascinating about hummingbirds. As such, it begs the question, “What will researchers discover next about these amazing birds?”
I am truly amazed at the ruby-throated hummingbird’s memory. For example, studies have revealed rubythroats can remember the locations of every feeder and flower they visit in our yards as well as how long it takes each flower to replenish its supply of nectar. They can even remember the locations of the feeders and flower beds that provided them with food the previous year.
Wow! It must take a truly large brain to accomplish such mental fetes. In truth, the rubythroat’s brain is smaller than a pea. While that is indeed physically very small, comparatively speaking it is larger than our brains or those of any other bird in the entire world. Let me explain.
The hummingbird brain makes up about 4.2 percent of its body weight. This makes its brain is proportionally larger than the brains of all other birds. In comparison, our brains comprise only about 2 percent of our body weight.
Recently my wife and I attended THE FLOWER FANTASY AT PINEOLA FARMS located near Fort Valley. The flower show was sponsored by the Magnolia Garden Club. The event was great and the most unusual and fascinating flower show I have ever attended. If the Magnolia Garden Club stages the event next year, prior to the event, I will describe what makes the flower show so different than any others that I have attended. This is a flower show you don’t want to miss.
One of the vendors selling plants at the event was Growing Old Nursery. The relatively new nursery is located between LaGrange and Columbus. While the owners grow and sell a wide variety of plants they specialize in heirloom flowers and vegetables, and native plants.
My wife and I bought a number of plants from them including native azaleas, butterfly weed, touch-me-nots and hollyhocks. I have found it hard to find hollyhocks that produce single flowers. Invariably when I locate hollyhock seeds or plants they are double-flowered varieties. The ruby-throated hummingbird and other pollinators prefer feeding on hollyhocks that display single flowers.
For more information regarding the availability of plants, contact Mary Ann Johnson at (706) 366-6863 or email@example.com.
There is much we do not know about the ruby-throated hummingbird. For example, most of what we know about how high rubythroats fly when they are migrating is based on anecdotal evidence. With that in mind, it appears that ruby-throated hummingbirds migrate much closer to the earth than many other feathered migrants.
What sketchy information available suggests ruby-throated hummingbirds migrate close to the land. In fact, many appear to migrate very close to the tops of trees. It is believed that this enables the tiny migrants to spot places where they can refuel before resuming their journey.
This is not to say that some hummingbirds don’t fly much higher. Hot air balloonists have reported seeing rubythroats cruising along upwards of 500 feet above the ground.
Once rubythroats reach the Gulf of Mexico, they appear to wing their way along just above the tops of the waves. This conclusion is based on sightings made by men and women working on oil and gas platforms far from shore in the Gulf of Mexico and fishermen seeing these tiny, feathered dynamos zipping along close to the waters of the Gulf. These sightings appear to indicate ruby-throated hummingbirds migrate closer to the earth than many other migrants.
Most small birds migrate at altitudes ranging from 500 to 1,000 feet. Raptors migrate anywhere from 700-4000 feet up whereas waterfowl migrate to and from their breeding grounds at altitudes of 200-1450 feet high.
However, a mallard was once struck by an airplane flying 21,000 feet above the earth.
The redbud trees growing around my home are now in full bloom. These native trees are pleasing to the eye and are currently feeding a surprising number of my backyard neighbors.
One thing that is impossible to notice is that redbud blossoms attract an amazing number of bees and other pollinators. In fact, on a warm late winter or early spring day my largest redbud seems to buzz. The buzzing sound is made by the countless numbers of bees foraging among the dark pink blossoms that cover the tree’s branches.
If the redbud blossoms do not fall before the year’s first ruby-throated hummingbirds arrive, I will have a chance of spotting a hummer or two visiting the trees flowers. Although redbud blooms are not the greatest source of nectar for the birds, when it is one of the few nectar plants that are blooming at this time of the year, they will make feeding forays to the tree.
Birds such as northern cardinals and cedar waxwings sometimes visit redbud trees in full bloom. They are not there seeking nectar or pollen. To the contrary, they actually eat the redbud’s buds and flowers. Although these birds might seem to eat more than their share of these tasty morsels, there are more than enough blossoms to feed the birds and pollinators.
Since the redbud’s blooms appear before its leaves, while I am admiring the tree’s floral show, from time to time I sometimes spot tufted titmice, Carolina chickadees and downy woodpeckers hunting for insects and their eggs hidden on the bark of the tree. Once the leaves appear, it is far more difficult to see these birds foraging for food.
My only regret is that the redbud’s floral show is way too short. When redbud blossoms litter the ground, I know I must wait 12 months to enjoy its next stunning floral show and the wide variety of animals drawn to it.
If you are looking for a different twist to hummingbird watching, why not try offering female ruby-throated hummingbirds nesting material?
As anybody that has ever tried to locate a hummingbird knows, it is next to impossible to find one. Most of the folks fortunate enough to find a hummingbird nest do so accidentally. As a result, most hummingbird fanciers resign themselves to the reality that they will probably never see one of these remarkable creations in the wild.
However, would it not be great to at least see a female hummingbird gathering material for her nest? I know a couple that several times witnessed hummers gathering nesting material they have provided the birds.
There are a couple of ways that you can do the same. One way is to buy something called a hummingbird nesting ball. This is a ball fashioned from grapevines. It contains cotton, and various other natural plant fibers. You can also offer nesting material in a wire suet feeder. Fill the wire cage with cotton (not cotton balls), plant down and the like. Hang either device in a spot frequented by hummingbirds (e.g. near a hummingbird feeder). Then sit back and watch. If you are lucky, you just might spot a female pinch off some fibers and fly away to incorporate in her nest.
Regardless of whether you buy a hummingbird nesting ball, or create your own, make sure it contains only natural fibers. Artificial fibers may be chemically treated or retain water.
If you spot a hummingbird gathering nesting material, watch where it goes. Since you know she is flying toward her nest, her flight just might lead to her nesting site. If you lose track of the bird, stand a short distance away from where it vanished and wait. Move to that location and when the bird flies by again on its flight back to its nest, follow the bird until it once more disappears. Repeat this process until you finally spot the nest.
I am certain that the ruby-throated hummingbirds nesting in or near our yards have few problems find the plant down, bud scales, lichens and spider silk they need to create a nest. However, watching a hummingbird collect nesting material we provide adds a new dimension to hummingbird watching.
Now that February is in our rearview mirror we need to be on the lookout for arrival of the first ruby-throated hummingbird of the year. In fact, I would not be surprised if a vanguard of rubythroats has already reached the Peach State.
I live in Monroe County just north of Macon. To my knowledge, the earliest that a ruby-throated hummingbird has been seen in the county is March 12. However, friends living in southwest Georgia have told me that some years they see their first hummer during the first ten days of March. On the other hand, folks living in north Georgia tell me they often do not see their first hummingbird of the spring until the end of March or in April.
Now that you know rubythroats are on the way, go ahead and pour some fresh nectar into a feeder and hang it out in the same spot where it was hung last year. If you don’t, you may well look out your window one morning and spot a rubythroat hovering where a feeder was hung a year ago. If that does not make you feel like a heel, nothing else will.
Please let me know when you experience the excitement of seeing your first rubythroat of the year!