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BACKYARD SECRET—THE RUBY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRD’S BRAIN IS BIGGER THAN YOU THINK

        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.

      

       

GROWING OLD NURSERY SELLS HEIRLOOM AND NATIVE PLANTS

     Recently my wife and I attended THE FLOWER FANTASY AT PINEOLA FARMS located near Fort ValleyThe 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 growingoldplants@gmail.com.

      

 

 

BACKYARD SECRET—RUBYTHROATS MIGRATE CLOSE TO THE GROUND OR SEA

      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.

IN SPRING, REDBUD TREES FEED MORE THAN POLLINATORS

       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.

PROVIDING HUMMERS WITH NESTING MATERIAL

        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.  

HOORAY! HUMMINGBIRDS ARE ON THE WAY

     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!

IT’S TIME TO PRUNE TRUMPET CREEPER VINES

      One of the keys to transforming a backyard into a hummingbird haven is providing hummingbirds with an abundance of food throughout the year.  One of the plants that is often used to meet this objective is a native vine named trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans).  This vine is so favorited by ruby-throated hummingbirds it is often called hummingbird vine.  However, like many hummingbird food plants, it requires some care.  In the case of the trumpet creeper, this Georgia native needs to be pruned annually; and now is the time to do so.

       Trumpet creeper does well on trellises, arbors, and fences.  However, since it grows rapidly it should never be planted near a building. To prevent this from happening, trumpet creeper vines need pruned annually.  Also, pruning back the vines will stimulate them to produce more nectar-laden flowers.

       As such this is one of the chores you need to accomplish before leaves begin to appear.  By doing so, you will be enhancing the beauty of your hummingbird haven and help ensure ruby-throated hummingbirds will have an abundance of nectar this year.

PINEAPPLE SAGE IS GREAT FOR LATE SEASON HUMMERS AND MORE

        There are at least 60 species of salvias.  In addition, more than 50 cultivars of these popular plants are also available.  There are so many varieties of salvias available it is difficult for Georgia gardeners to decide which are best for their gardens.  If you are looking for salvia that blooms late from late summer into fall and provides nectar for hummingbirds, butterflies, native bees and other pollinators, I recommend you plant pineapple sage (Salvia elegans).

       This plant is native in Central America.  Here in Georgia it is  either a tender perennial or annual.  While it is susceptible to cold weather, some gardeners report that when mulched it can survive winter temperatures that plummet as low as 5˚F.

       One of the things I like about pineapple sage is that it begins blooming late in the summer and will continue producing blooms until the frost ends its growing season.  Consequently, in autumn, it is providing nectar when it is often a scarce commodity.

       Although ruby-throated hummingbirds have been gone from our yard for weeks, they did nectar at the plants long tubular-shaped blooms before they left.  However, the main beneficiaries of its nectar are now cloudless sulphur and sleepy orange butterflies, and native bees.

       Over the years, many folks that have been lucky enough to attract wintering hummingbirds have told me that rufous hummingbirds frequent the pineapple sage’s striking red blossoms.

       Pineapple sage grows to be 3-4 feet tall and 3-4′ wide.  It seems to prosper in spots bathed in both morning and afternoon sunshine.  Pineapple sage also needs frequent watering. In addition, they do best in rich, well-drained soil.

       The plants are easily propagated from cuttings.  Young plants should be transplanted as soon as the threat of frost has passed in your neck of the woods.

       As you might expect, the blooming period in the southern half of the state is considerably long that it is in Middle and North Georgia.  However, regardless of how long is blooms, when it is blooming it provides pollinators with a valuable source of food while at the same time adding beauty to our yards.

                 Cloudless Sulphur on Pineapple Sage

       My wife and I bring our potted plants inside in the winter.  The pineapple sage growing in our yard is mulched during the winter.

       With the freezing weather forecast during the next several days, it is time for us to protect our pineapple sage before it is too late: This is one plant we do not want to lose.

DO HUMMINGBIRDS SEEM TO BE LEAVING EARLY THIS YEAR?

        It appears that hummingbirds are leaving my yard early this year.

       Throughout most of August, my wife and I made lots of hummingbird food.  During these hot days of August, we were preparing and feeding the birds 20-25 cups of nectar every day or two.  This was because we were feeding more hummingbirds than during any previous August.  Based on the maximum numbers of birds we were seeing at any given time, I calculated that we were feeding 100 or more hummers daily.

       These numbers remained steady until September 4 when the nectar consumption dropped significantly.  Suddenly we were feeding the birds 20-25 cups of nectar every three to four days.  This was surprising because, in a normal year, we don’t see a significant decline in hummingbird numbers that early in the month.

       On September 12, I was surprised to see an adult male ruby-throated hummingbird dining at our feeders.  The bird also returned the next day.  While seeing an adult male that late in the summer was big news, what was even bigger news was the male was one of only three hummingbirds using our feeders daily.

       Since then, the male has moved on, however, we are still feeding only two or three hummingbirds.  This is in spite of the fact that we are still providing the little migrants with plenty of sugar water and flowerbeds and containers are awash with the blooms of a number of nectar plants.

       The seemingly early departure of the birds has reinforced my realization that, in spite of studying these magical birds for decades, there is so much I still do not know about them.

       I sure would like to know whether you have noticed that rubythroats seemingly left your yard early this year also.  It would help me understand if this is a local or widespread phenomenon.

SAYING GOOD-BYE FOR ANOTHER YEAR

       Currently our backyards are abuzz with hummingbirds.  The birds we are now seeing are a combination of ruby-throated hummingbirds that have already begun their migration and local birds that are preparing to embark on their fall migration.

       The first birds to leave are the adult males.  Some males that that breed north of Georgia actually begin flying south during the first couple of weeks in July.  In comparison, males that spent the spring and summer in Georgia often do not commence their migration until late July or early August.  However, it is still possible to see a few males at our feeders right now.

       Adult females migrate next.  The vast majority of the birds that are now gorging themselves on the nectar provided by our flowers such as scarlet sage and feeders are a combination of adult females, immature females, and immature males.  As I have discussed in former blogs (check the archive), it is easy to tell the immature males from the females.  However, it is often next to impossible to distinguish an adult female from a female hatched this year from afar.  In fact, the only sure way to do this is capture them and closely examine their bills.  However, in some cases, at this time of the year adult females are often larger than immature females.

       While the migration of the adult females is already underway, some will be feeding in our yards for a few more weeks.

       The last to leave are immature hummers.  They will be devouring as much nectar as they can consume for a few more weeks.  Ideally, an immature that weighed only about three grams a few weeks ago will try to store enough fuel (fat) to bring its weight up to around five grams before leaving.

       My wife and I have enjoyed feeding more hummingbirds this year than ever before.  We have been feeding them around twenty cups of nectar a day for weeks.  In addition, we have thoroughly enjoyed watching the birds visiting scarlet sage, zinnias, Turk’s cap, trumpet creeper, and a host of other plants.  We have also seen the birds apparently gleaning tiny insects and spiders from foliage and flowers that do not produce an abundance of nectar.  We realize the protein these small animals provide is an essential part of the hummingbird’s diet.

       Much to our chagrin hummingbird numbers have dropped off in recent days.  We know that they have to leave, but that we also realize we will miss them.  As such, even though we are still hosting lots of hummingbirds, we are already looking forward to their return next spring.

       If you are an avid fan of rubythroats, I am sure you understand why we feel this way.