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BIOLOGISTS USE NEW DEVICE TO TRACK HUMMINGBIRDS IN BACKYARDS

      Modern technology is having an awesome impact on wildlife research.  Drones are now permitting biologists to assess such things as wildlife habitats and animal behavior in a fraction of the time and effort it would take using techniques that are more conventional.  Even PIT (Passive Intergrated Transponder) technology is enabling biologists to track the movements of animals as small as a hummingbird.

       If a dog or cat has found a Forever Home in your residence, you are familiar with PIT tags.  Most dogs and cats carry a PIT tag.  However, PIT technology has advances enough to the point where miniaturized tracking devices are tiny enough to be used to track the movements of a hummingbird.  As with our pets, these extremely small devices are delicately inserted beneath the animal’s skin

       With this technology, biologists can easily track the movements of individual hummingbirds going about their daily lives.  A group of researchers from the University Of California Davis School Of Veterinary Medicine recently reported the results of their study designed to track hummingbirds visiting feeders in a suburban backyard.  Each time a hummingbird visited a feeder their visit was logged by a scanning device similar to those used when we purchase everything from books and clothing to groceries.

       The study involved placing PIT tags in Anna’s and Allen’s hummingbird and then recording how often and long each tagged bird visited the seven feeders scattered about the yard.  From September 2016 through March 2018, the birds visited the feeders roughly 65,500 times.

       Among the fascinating facts the biologists have gleaned from their study are:

● Female hummingbirds have a tendency to linger longer at feeders than males.

● During the spring and summer hummingbirds visit feeders more often in the morning and evening than at any other part of the day.

● Male hummingbirds more often feed with other males than with females.

       Do any of these findings hold true with what you have observed watching ruby-throated hummingbirds in your backyard?

                             

DANGEROUS MICROBES LIVING IN HUMMINGBIRD FEEDERS

       We are all concerned about the health of the hummingbirds that we host at our hummingbird feeders.  Consequently we try to keep our feeders as clean as possible in hopes that microbes living on our feeders and the nectar we offer are not going to cause a health problem for our hummingbird neighbors.  For the first time, researchers have focused on what microscopic critters dwell in backyard feeders.

       Scientists at the University of California, Davis, conducted the research.  The research team carried out their study in a backyard located in Winter, California.  Both Anna’s and black-chinned hummingbirds frequented the feeders in this yard.

       During the study, the microbe communities living in the sugar water offered in feeders, on nearby flowers producing nectar, as well as on the hummingbirds themselves were compared.

       The results of the research project indicated that the majority of the bacteria growing in the hummingbird food offered in feeders did not pose a significant health threat to hummingbirds or humans.  However, also present were much smaller populations of bacteria and fungi that could potentially have a harmful effect on humans and hummers.

       It should be noted the scientists found deionized water harbored the most fungi.  In comparison, bacteria were most abundant in tap and bottled water.

       The research team recommended that cleaning hummingbird feeders away from locations where food is prepared.  This would minimize the risk of a potentially harmful pathogen would be spread to humans.

       I think it is abundantly clear we should make every effort to keep our hummingbird feeders as clean as possible.

HUMMINGBIRDS ARE SWARMING TO SCARLET SAGE

      Having studied hummingbirds for decades, I have learned the folks that usually attract the most birds to their yards are those that plant a wide variety of flowering plants that offer the birds plenty of food from spring through fall; supplemented with sugar water served in feeders.  There is no better time to witness this than August. 

       I say this because hummingbirds are more abundant in our yards right now than they have been at any time earlier this year.  As such, if you have planted a wide variety of nectar-laden plants, this is a great time to see which of these plants these tiny-feathered jewels favor during the heat of summer.  The abundance of hummingbirds gives you the opportunity to assess their food preferences in a very short period.

       For years, my wife and I have been planting a host of different plants for hummingbirds.  Right now, by far, the plant most often visited by hummingbirds is scarlet sage (Salvia coccinea).  This Georgia native produces an abundance of scarlet red one-inch long tubular-shaped flowers.

       We are growing scarlet sage in flowerbeds with companion plants such as black-eyed Susans, purple coneflower, zinnia, blanket flower, and cosmos.  We also have it planted in containers on our deck.  Some containers contain nothing other than scarlet sage.  However, since it produces an abundance of seed, some of the seeds dropped last year somehow found their way into nearby pots where my wife is rooting buddleia and roses.  Additionally, scarlet sage has volunteered in containers where she scattered the seeds of zinnias, blanket flowers, and black-eyed Susans this spring.  Scarlet sage is growing well there too.

       From morning to dusk, hummingbirds repeatedly visit the scarlet sage blooms more often than those of lantana, zinnia, trumpet creeper, Turk’s cap, purple salvia, hosta, Mexican sunflower, and other hummingbird favorites.  This plant has literally become a hummingbird magnet.

       While I thoroughly enjoy watching rubythroats feeding at scarlet sage blooms planted about the yard, I especially enjoy those growing in containers on our deck.  Regardless of whether I am working on the deck or sitting nearby the plants enjoying a cup of coffee and having the birds feed a few feet away.

       If you do not have as much hummingbird activity around the flowering plants blooming in your yard right now, I suggest you begin planting hummingbird food plants.  By including them in your gardens, next year your yard will be more beautiful, hummingbirds will have more food choices and the numbers of hummers using your yard should increase.  Now that is called a win, win, win situation.

        

BACKYARD SECRET: THE WITH THE GREATEST VOLUME OF NECTAR MAY BE GROWING IN YOUR YARD

       Can you name the plant that displays flowers that contain the greatest volume of nectar?  It is not Mexican cigar, red hot poker, Turk’s cap  or one of the scores of other alien plants we plant in our gardens to attract hummingbirds and butterflies.  You might be surprised to learn it is a native woody vine known as trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans)

       The woody vine’s orange blossoms are so popular with hummingbirds it is often sold in the nursery trade as hummingbird vine.

       This plant commonly grows in yards across the state.  However, in many cases it is considered a weed and not recognized as a valuable hummingbird food plant.  The reason for this is it will climb on houses and other manmade structures.  However, if you plant it alongside an arbor, trellis, or fence away from a building, it can be an asset instead of a liability.  Trumpet creep can also be trained to take on the form of a small tree.

BACKYARD SECRET: HUMMINGBIRDS PREFER NECTAR WITH PLENTY OF SUGAR

   

    RUBY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRD FEEDING

       Ruby-throated hummingbirds do not feed at flowers containing small amounts of nectar.  In fact, they refuse to feed at flowers harboring less than 12 percent sugar.

       Studies have found that they prefer to dine on nectar that contains anywhere from twenty to twenty-five percent sugar.

       With that in mind, is it any wonder the recommended ratio of sugar to water in the sugar water we most often feed hummingbirds dining at our backyard feeders is one part sugar to four parts water?

INDEPENDENCE DAY HUMMINGBIRD EXPLOSION

        No Independence Day celebration would be complete without fireworks.  The explosions of brilliant colors against the dark summer night add a special excitement to this festive time of the year.  However, during this special time of the year aerial kaleidoscopes of color do not have to be confined to the night.  From dawn to dusk, hummingbirds decked out in iridescent green and red streak across Georgia backyards creating their own colorful aerial displays.

       July is a special time of the year for hummingbird enthusiasts.  Beginning around Independence Day there is an explosion of hummingbirds at our feeders.  Up until then, ruby-throated hummingbirds have been scattered across the countryside living in discreet breeding territories measuring an acre or more in size.  Consequently, aside for a brief period that extends from late May into early June, large concentrations of hummers around our feeders are rare occurrences.  All of this changes after the females complete their nesting chores.  With the breeding season largely coming to an end, rubythroats begin preparing for their fall migration.

       For these flying dynamos, getting ready for this epic journey means storing the fat needed to fuel their southward flight away from backyards across North America.  These tiny birds may visit 1,500 flowers in a single day trying to put on weight as quickly as possible.

       The main sources of food are nectar gleaned from flowers, small soft-bodied invertebrates as well as the sugar water we offer them at feeders hanging in our backyards.  Since drought conditions across much of the state have resulted in a paucity of nectar-laden wildflowers this year, nectar will be in short supply this summer.  This forces the birds to look to the flowering plants and hummingbird bird feeders located in our backyards for a readily available source of energy.

       The folks that will host the most hummingbirds at this time of the year are those that had the foresight to incorporate a variety of nectar-bearing flowers into their landscape design to go along with feeders filled with fresh nectar.  If you failed to plant flowers for hummingbirds this past spring, make a mental note to do so next year. 

       Meanwhile offer your hummingbird visitors plenty of nectar.  Begin by hanging up one or two feeders.  Add additional feeders as the number of diners at your backyard cafe increase.  Make sure there is always plenty of food for the birds.  If you plan on going on vacation, ask a neighbor to monitor and refill feeders as needed.  This will help ensure an explosion of ruby-throated hummingbirds will be patrolling your feeders long after the fireworks of this Independence Day have faded away.

THE RUBY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRD’S DISPLAY FLIGHT

         One of the most fascinating animal behaviors can you see in your backyard is the display flight of the male ruby-throated hummingbird.

         Over the years, I have been fortunate to witness this fete on a number of occasions.  However, until last week I had never observed it three separate times in a matter of a couple of days.

        This acrobatic maneuver is unmistakable.  The male will repeatedly fly to and fro in a wide U-shaped arc.  Often the male is so adept at retracing the path of his previous arc it appears he is coursing along an unseen track.

        At times, the bottom of the arc brings the male so close to the head of a perched female you are convinced he is going to collide with her.  As he approaches the seemingly unperturbed object of his affection, the buzzing sound created by the air passing through his tail and wing feathers becomes appreciably louder.  This dramatic display is designed to convince the female he is a suitable suitor.  However, the only time she gives him the time of day is during a handful of days prior to her laying a clutch of two eggs.

        After I enjoyed the sight of a male rubythroat engaged in an aerial display, I related the story to my wife.  She said she had never been lucky enough to see the display.  Remarkably  the very next day, while we were both standing on our deck a male suddenly appeared and performed the aerial fete in front of us.  In fact, one side of the U-shaped arc was so close to our heads I thought he was going to collide with us.

         A couple of days later my daughter was standing on the deck with us when she suddenly exclaimed,  “What is that hummingbird doing?”  I looked up and could not believe my eyes–a male rubythroat was once again engaged in a display flight.

        Observing three ruby-throated hummingbird aerial displays and being able to be with my wife and daughter when they both witnessed their first courtship displays is something I will never forget;  this is backyard wildlife watching at its best.

MEMORIAL DAY RUBY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRDS

        For many years right around Memorial Day, I have received reports from homeowners throughout the state reporting the numbers of hummingbirds visiting their feeders dramatically increase.  Although it is great to have squadrons of rubythroats zooming around our yards, many hummingbird experts are scratching their heads trying to figure out why the birds are so abundant at that time of the year.  This year is no exception.

        The first ruby-throated hummingbirds begin arriving throughout much of Georgia in late March.  Typically, at this time of the year it is unusual to host more than two to four birds at a time.  At the peak of migration, you are lucky if you see six of eight of these aerial acrobats in your backyard.  Most of these linger only long enough to refuel before resuming their migration to points north.

        Once the migration has passed males and female scatter across the countryside and settle into breeding territories that possess a combination of suitable nesting sites and ample food supplies.  Once a male chooses a section of real estate, he spend the rest of his time trying to attract females.  These breeding territories rarely exceed an acre to two.  Consequently, if a male doesn’t select a territory that includes your yard, you might not see any hummers visiting your feeders for a month or two.

        If another male hummingbird happens to venture into a male’s breeding habitat, the interloper is attacked and usually driven off.  For this reason, during the peak of the breeding season, you are not apt to spot more than one ruby-throated hummingbird male using the same feeder.

        While male hummers are beating up on one another, the females are busy with the serious business of either incubating a fragile clutch of black-eyed pea-sized eggs or raising their first brood of the year.  During the 10-12 days that females are incubating eggs, they spend most of their time on the nest.  As such, they have little time to visit feeders.

        Once the eggs hatch, females are kept extremely busy finding enough food to feed their young.  During the approximately three weeks the young are preparing for their first flight, females are foraging for nectar as well as small, soft-bodied insects and spiders.  These animals provide the much-needed protein necessary for the development of the young.  As you might expect, females will visit our feeders more often during this time.

        Since most of the state is in the peak of the ruby-throated hummingbird nesting season, I think you can see why it is seems odd to have swarms of hummingbirds patrolling our feeders right now.  Some suggest perhaps this invasion is due to the fact hummingbird nesting was early this year, and the year’s first brood are now joining their parents at our feeders.  However, based on my observations, this theory doesn’t hold any water.  My banding efforts in prior years during this time frame revealed that all of the birds I captured in my backyard were adults.  This year, although I have not done any early banding, I have not seen any immature birds at my feeders.

        Another possible explanation is these the birds are late migrants.  This seems unlikely since some rubythroats actually begin their southward migration in July.  This leaves precious little time for the birds to reach their nesting grounds, establish breeding territories, and raise their young.  However, since very little hummingbird banding is conducted at this time of the year in the Peach State, this theory cannot be disclaimed or proven.

        A more plausible explanation is this dramatic change in hummingbird behavior is linked to another extremely dry spring.  Once again, this year Georgia was treated with winter temperatures that were well above normal.

       As a result, flowering plants bloomed much earlier than normal in many parts of the state.  This was followed by increasingly dry conditions throughout much of April.  A lack of rainfall has persisted throughout the month of May.  This has further reduced the number of nectar-rich blooms available to hummingbirds.  According to this theory, this situation has created a food shortage for hummingbirds and other nectar feeders.  Even in the best of times, a hummingbird must often venture far and wide to feed themselves and their young.  Our feeders offer hummingbirds with abundant sources of food that can be obtained with little effort.

        If this is the scenario that is playing out this year, it will be interesting to see how this affects the success of the birds’ first nesting efforts.  In the meantime, if hummers are not currently swarming around your feeders, be patient.  Hummingbirds will be jousting with each other around your feeders in about a month. If, on the other hand, you are lucky enough to have hummingbirds draining your feeders daily, don’t worry about why they are there, just sit back, and enjoy the show.

       

A HUMMINGBIRD AND CHICKADEES BROUGHT BACKYARD SURPRISES

        I learned a long time ago to expect the unexpected whenever I venture into my backyard.   Recently two events that took place in my backyard in the same afternoon once again demonstrated you never know when you are going to witness something special.

        In this case, I walked outside to take a close look at an extremely large cluster of long, tubular-shaped orange, red, and yellow blossoms poised atop one of our red-hot poker plant’s long flower stems.  While standing within six feet of the large torch-like floral cluster, a ruby-throated hummingbird suddenly flew in and began feeding on the backside of the cluster of flowers.  I could tell the bird was there because the tips of its wings projected beyond the sides of the flowery torch.  I stood transfixed, savoring the opportunity to be standing so close to the feeding bird.  All the while the bird fed I was hoping its feeding activities would bring it around to my side of the torch.  I would like to report my vigil was rewarded; however, the bird eventually flew off without circling the blossoms.  As it flew away, I could see the bird was an adult male rubythroat.

        About an hour later, I went outside to see what else was going on outside my backdoor.  This time when I reached the top of the steps leading from the deck into the yard, an adult Carolina chickadee perched in a nearby dogwood caught my eye.  Since the bird seemed agitated I began looking about to see if the family cat was nearby.

        Although I did not spot the cat, I saw four young chickadees flying from plant to plant.  The birds had obviously just fledged from a nearby log nesting structure.  Not wanting to stress the young birds, I watched the birds from the deck.  It was obvious the youngsters were testing out their wings for the first time.  They flew very slowly, never attaining an altitude of more than six feet.  These flights were short and ended in clumsy landings.

        Fearing my presence would alert the cat to what was going on, coupled with my desire not to hinder their initial attempts to fly, I went back inside.  An hour or so later I went returned outside and was pleased the new squadron of chickadees had moved on.

        I could not believe how fortunate I was to enjoy two fantastic wildlife adventures in the same afternoon.  While I always find something of interest whenever I make a backyard trek, it is not often that I experience two very special encounters with my backyard neighbors within hours of each other.

        What a day!

PROVIDING NESTING MATERIAL FOR HUMMERS

       Have you ever given any thought of trying to provide nesting hummingbirds with a source of nesting material?  I must admit while I have placed pieces of cotton in a wire suet feeder in the spring hoping it might be used by nesting birds, I never considered the possibility the white fibers might be used by a ruby-throated hummingbird.  However, three events have caused me to change my mind.

        Several years ago, I presented a hummingbird program to a garden club in southwest Georgia that met in the home of one of its members.  While I was setting up my projector and screen, the host asked me if I ever heard of a hummingbird using cotton to build a nest.  I told her although I had not, I could see how hummingbirds might incorporate cotton in a nest. 

        She then went on the explain that she had seen a female hummer collect cotton in her backyard.  It seems she planted a cotton seed in a pot that sat near her house.  The seed germinated and grew into a healthy plant festooned with balls of cotton.  Since the plant looked attractive, she left it in pot throughout the winter.

        The following spring while she was standing in her living room, looking out across her patio a female hummingbird flew down, plucked some cotton fibers from a cotton ball, and flew up to a nearby tree.  The bird repeated this behavior several times.  Although she never actually saw the bird using the cotton to build a nest, she surmised that is what the little bird was doing.

        I was reminded of this homeowner’s experience last week when I received an email from a man relating that he had witnessed a female hummingbird collect a bit of cotton from a suet feeder filled with cotton batting.  This prompted him to search for a nest.  Remarkably, his efforts paid off and he discovered a hummingbird nest close by.

        Earlier this week I mentioned this event to a cousin.  He was so intrigued by the story he went out and bought a wire suet feeder, filled it with cotton, and hung it out near his home.  Unbelievably before the sun set he spotted a female hummer pulling strands of cotton from the  feeder.  Now he is looking for a nest.

        With this kind of success, perhaps this is something we should all try.  Even though a hummingbird might not avail itself of the cotton we offer, chances are other nesting birds will.