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BACKYARD SECRET–RUBY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRD EAT LOTS OF INSECTS AND SPIDERS

       Most hummingbird enthusiasts believe plant nectar is the primary food of the ruby-throated hummingbird.  At the same time, they recognize small insects and spiders are essential to the rubythroat’s diet.  However, according to entomologist Dr. Doug Tallamy, renowned native plant proponent, and a growing number of hummingbird experts, hummingbirds are actually insectivorous birds that also consume nectar.  In fact, Dr. Tallamy has stated, Hummingbirds like and need nectar but 80 percent of their diet is insects and spiders.”

       Research conducted by biologists at Cornell University’s Laboratory of Ornithology seem to corroborate this claim.  When the researchers trapped and followed the movements of a female hummingbird for two weeks never once did she eat any nectar.

                       

IS HUMMINGBIRD FOOD MADE IN A MICROWAVE SAFE FOR THE BIRDS?

       Recently, reports have surfaced claiming hummingbird nectar prepared in a microwave is harmful to the health of the hummingbirds that consume it.  Is this claim true?

       The internet sites making this allegation provide little information to substantiate the allegation.  One site alleges that when a sugar solution is heated in a microwave the chemical composition of the sugar molecule is altered.  This, in turn, has a deleterious effect on sugar’s nutritional value to hummingbirds.

       This belief may stem from the fact that it has been widely reported that food heated in a microwave can reduce the levels of such things as vitamin C, some antioxidants, and omega fatty acids.

       I have checked a number of sources trying to run down the source of this allegation.  To date, I have not been able to uncover a single study that substantiates the claim.  In fact, as of this posting, even the prestigious Cornell University’s Laboratory of Ornithology’s website does not warn hummingbird enthusiasts of any danger associated with boiling hummingbird nectar in a microwave.

      Until this issue is resolved, if you are among the folks that use a microwave to prepare hummingbird food, you might want to use the microwave to heat the water you are going to use to make nectar.  Then remove the water before adding the sugar to create the food.  This eliminates any possibility that the food value of the nectar is compromised by the boiling process.

       As you probably already know, you need to use extreme caution when adding the sugar to the boiling water.  Water heated in a microwave to this temperature has a tendency to “explode” when touched with a foreign object.  This extremely hot water can burn the preparer’s hands.

        Whenever I am able to determine whether this claim is true or false, I will let you know.

NOW IS A GREAT TIME TO BEGIN PLANTING ZINNIAS

      Zinnias are among my favorite plants.  Whenever I plant them, I cannot help but recall pleasant memories of planting them as a child many years ago.  Now that I am a wildlife gardener, I am fond of them because the add beauty to my yard and are great wildlife plants too.  With that in mind, my wife and I are preparing to plant zinnias for the first time this year.  That’s right I said for the first time because my wife and I plant zinnias multiple times a year.

       We plant patches of zinnias in our gardens as well as in large planters.  The crop we are planting now will begin producing flowers in sixty to seventy days.  Once the plants bloom, we prolong the time they bloom by deadheading spent blossoms.  By planting zinnias once week for several weeks, we are ensuring that we will enjoy zinnia blossoms and our wildlife neighbors will have access to the food they provide well into the fall.

       My wife and I have had the best luck attracting hummingbirds, butterflies and our nectar feeders using single-flowered varieties.  They provide hummingbirds easy access to the plant’s nectar.  In addition, many butterflies seem to prefer feeding on the relatively flat surface offered by the flat landing area found on the blooms of old fashion varieties.

       While butterflies visit zinnias for their nectar, hummingbirds also eat the tiny insects often found on zinnia blooms.  In fact, it has been suggested they visit zinnias as much for the protein provided by insects as they do nectar.

       My wife and I also enjoy watching American goldfinches visit our zinnias during the summer.  The birds spend day after day pulling the petals off zinnia flowers to reach the seeds found at base of the petals.

       I think it is great that zinnias enhance by backyard wildlife viewing opportunities by attracting hummingbirds, scores of butterflies and American goldfinches.

       I hope you will plant them in your garden this year.  If you do, I will be surprised if they do not offer you some great wildlife viewing too.

LOOKING AT NECTAR PLANTS THROUGH THE EYES OF A HUMMINGBIRD

      My wife and I enjoy gardening for hummingbirds.  In an effort to provide them with a source of nectar throughout as much of the year as possible, we provide them a multitude of plants.  The list of nectar plants includes such hummingbird favorites as zinnia, Turk’s cap, trumpet creeper, lantana, coral honeysuckle, scarlet sage, lyre leaf sage, red buckeye, hollyhock, columbine and many more.  These plants provide us with an ever-changing mosaic composed of different colors.  Often when I gaze at this gorgeous setting, I cannot help but wonder what these plants look like through the eyes of the ruby-throated hummingbirds that visit these flowers countless times.

       Research conducted by researchers representing the Princeton University Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard, University of Maryland, Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory and the University of British Columbia has revealed our ability to see colors pales in comparison with that of hummingbirds.  Princeton University Assistant Professor Mary Caswell put it this way, “Humans are color blind compared to birds and many other animals.” 

       The research discovered hummingbirds appear to be able to detect pure ultra-violet from a combination of colors such as ultra-violet plus red and red as well as ultra-violet plus green from pure green.  Ultra-violet plus red and ultra-violet plus green were undetectable to the researchers.

       Many scientists believe the reason why hummingbirds are able to see far more colors than us is linked to the fact that a hummingbird’s eye contains four different types of cones whereas humans have but three.  The fourth type of cones detect near ultra-violet light (UV).  Ultraviolet light is invisible to the human eye. 

       The ability to detect near UV light is beneficial to hummingbirds because many nectar plants display colors in the near UV light range.  Consequently, such plants stand out more to hummingbirds than they do to humans.

              I am certain that this research represents another step toward our greater understanding of the hummingbird’s ability to see colors.  Wouldn’t it great to catch a glimpse at the colors of the natural world through the eyes of a hummingbird?

BACKYARD SECRET – THE RUBY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRD CANNOT WALK

       There are many reasons why the ruby-throated hummingbird is such an amazing bird.  For example, no other backyard bird is capable of performing the aerial fetes routinely carried out by this master of flight.  In spite of its performance in the air, it simply cannot walk a step.  At best, the bird can only shuffle its feet sideways.

       The ruby-throated hummingbird’s legs and feet are both extremely small.  In fact they are so small, the only time the vast majority of us ever seen them is when a hummingbird is perched on a hummingbird feeder.

       A retired elementary school teacher told me that many of her young students did not believe hummingbirds possessed legs and feet.  She went on to say the only way she was able to convince them otherwise was to show them the mummified body of a hummingbird that flew into her garage and died before it could be rescued.

       It might seem that not being able to walk would be a hindrance.  Obviously, that is not the case with rubythroats.  These aerial dynamos feed primarily while remaining airborne.  The only exceptions of this seem to be when they are perched at a feeder or flower petal eating nectar.

       If fact, if hummingbirds were burdened with legs and feet large enough to enable them to walk or run, the added weight of the bones and muscles would undoubtedly prevent them from being true masters of the air.

CORAL BEAN IS A FAVORITE OF RUBYTHROATS & BUTTERFLIES

       The coral bean (Erythrina herbacea) is a Georgia native that has made the transition from the wild to Georgia gardens particularly along the coast and across the Coastal Plain.

       Coral bean (also known cardinal spear and Cherokee bean) is a perennial, thorny shrub.  In the wild, a plant is most often found growing in the sandy soils of open woods, forest openings, and disturbed areas.

       Although coral bean will grow in zones 7-10, it is often found growing in gardens in the South Georgia than other parts of the state.  Actually, I am surprised this perennial native shrub it is not planted in more gardens.  Each spring dark (almost black) stalks emerge from the ground and display a bouquet of bright red blossoms. The contrast of coral bean’s red flowers borne on dark stalks is truly stunning.

       The floral show will continue into summer. During this time, plant’s tubular flowers are favorite sources of nectar for ruby-throated hummingbirds and butterflies. Since the plant begins blooming in spring, in many gardens, it is sometimes the only source of nectar available to these nectar feeders.

   Coral bean (also known cardinal spear and Cherokee bean) is a perennial, thorny shrub. 

       Once the blooming period has ended each plant produces a crop of 4-6″ seedpods. When the pods open, they reveal bright red seeds, which offer a splash of color to fall gardens. The seeds are eaten by both birds and small mammals; however, the seeds very poisonous to humans.  For that reason, children should be kept away from them.

       Coral bean is susceptible to frost. However, unless the plant’s roots succumb to freezing weather, new shoots should emerge the following spring.

       Interestingly, plants growing, in locales where freezing weather is a rarity such as South Florida, can grow to be 15 feet tall.

OFFERING HUMMINGBIRDS NESTING MATERIAL

        If you are looking for a gift for hummingbird devotees, a hummingbird nesting kit may be the answer.

       You can purchase kits from several companies or make your own.  Each kit consists of a wire suet feeder and a supply of nesting material.  All of the kits I checked out online contain either raw or processed cotton.  Some even include kapok and lichens.

       Currently hummingbird nesting kits are rarely employed in Georgia.  In fact, I only know one couple that annually offers cotton to ruby-throated hummingbirds .  They have told me that, on several occasions, they have seen female hummingbirds collecting cotton from their wire cages.  They also mentioned hummingbirds have a definite preference for loose cotton over cotton balls.  Perhaps this is because the birds find it more difficult to pull fibers out of a compacted ball.  Who knows?

       I suspect, in most locales, hummingbirds have little problem finding plant down to line their nests.  If that is the case, you might ask yourself,  “Why would anybody want to offer ruby-throated hummingbirds cotton?”  One reason might be having an ample supply of cotton fibers available to line their tiny nests makes the female’s arduous job of constructing a nest a little easier.  However, it may be because hummingbird fans simply want to experience the exhilaration that stems from watching a hummingbird actually use “their” cotton to construct its nest. 

       I know it would make my day!

BACKYARD SECRET–THE HUMMINGBIRD HAS THE FEWEST FEATHERS OUT OF ANY OF OUR BACKYARD BIRDS

As remarkable as it may seem, the hummingbird is cloaked with fewer feathers than any other bird in the entire world.  Depending on the species, a hummingbird’s plumage is comprised of only 1,000 – 1,500 feathers.  In comparison, the emperor penguin is covered with 80,000 feathers.

THE HUMMINGBIRD WATCH HAS BEGUN

       With March arriving this week, if you are a fan of the ruby-throated hummingbird, I am sure you are anxiously awaiting the arrival of the first rubythroat of 2021.

       Although some of the feathery, flying jewels are seen in Georgia during the month of February, the vast majority of the them don’t make landfall on the Gulf Coast until March.  From there, where you live in the Peach State will dictate when you spot your first rubythroat of the new year.

       For example, most years one doesn’t show up at the Johnson Homestead located in Monroe County until March 18.  By that time, rubythroats have already been making regular visits to backyard feeders scattered across the Coastal Plain.  However, many residents that live in the northern quarter of the state tell me they do not expect to see a rubythroat at their feeders until April.

       Males are the first to arrive in your neck of the woods.  Typically, females follow about 10 days later.  However, if a female is spotted at your feeder before you ever see a male, more than not, the first wave of males has already passed through your area and either did not linger long enough for you to see them, or, simply bypassed your home entirely on their way north.

       With the arrival of the year’s first hummers literally only days away, if you do not already have a hummingbird feeder hanging in your backyard, now is the time to put one up.  If you do so, you enhance your chances of seeing a rubythroat as early as possible.  In addition, you just might attract a rufous or other western hummingbird trying to store enough food to fuel his migration back to its breeding grounds far in the far west.

       I hope that you will take the time to share with me the arrival dates of your first male and female rubythroats of the year.  Your sightings will help me pin down the status of the 2021 ruby-throated hummingbird migration in Georgia.

BACKYARD SECRET — THE RUFOUS HUMMINGBIRD IS A MIGRATION CHAMPION

      Each winter a smattering of rufous hummingbirds spend the winter in backyards throughout Georgia.  In fact, the rufous has the distinction of being our most common hummingbird during this time of the year. That being the case, I thought you would like to know that this tiny bird also holds title of being the North American bird migration champion.

       Each year the rufous hummingbird’s annual migration takes it from its breeding range along the Pacific Coast of North America as far north as southeastern Alaska, to its winter home in Mexico and back again.  Scientists have estimated that, in order to accomplish this phenomenal athletic fete, the rufous hummingbird flies approximately 49 million times its body length (3.75″).  When this figure is compared to the distances flown by other North American birds relative to their body lengths, it turns out that the rufous hummingbird makes the longest migration of any North American bird.