Winged Jewels and Flower Kissers

Hummingbirds

I have always been entranced with Hummingbirds, those iridescent jewels of the air. They dazzle the beholder in their almost seemingly abrupt emergence from nowhere. These tiny creatures are almost magical as they perform feats of the seemingly impossible while seeking out sources of nectar in our gardens and feeders.

It always takes me by surprise every time I see one; darting across the yard, its wings going a mile a minute. I feel the quick energy emitting from its diminutive body. You can never get used to seeing such a spectacle. I am in awe of this tiny life and I cannot take my eyes off it. This sense of wonderment stays with me long after it has darted off again.

There are approximately 320 species of Hummingbird. All are New World birds; existing only in The Americas. Their range extends from Alaska to Chile with the greatest concentration living near the equator.  (See →List of Species of Hummingbirds)

History

Huitzilopochtli The Aztec Hummingbird god

Native Peoples throughout the Americas have been intrigued with Hummingbirds since the beginning. The Taíno People of The Caribbean and Florida, the first people to meet Columbus in the New World believed the Hummingbird was “The spreader of life on Earth”.  Hummingbirds became known as “Doctor birds” a name that is still used today in the West Indies.  Hummingbirds figured prominently in the religion of the Aztecs. Their most powerful god was Huitzilopochtli whose name meant Hummingbird sorcerer that spits fire.  Aztec warriors were thought to be reincarnated as these jeweled birds. Hummers also figure prominently in the lore of the Hopi Indians and the Pueblo Peoples of the arid southwest who believed the bird brought them much-needed rain.

Hummingbirds also impressed the Europeans. Tales of the winged jewels reached Europe through early naturalists such as John Lawson and John James Audubon who observed that “The Hummingbird does not shun mankind as other birds do”.

There is truth to this statement as many can attest to. Hummers are known to be intelligent creatures with excellent memories.

Awesome Aerialists

Hummingbirds are masters of hovering flight: suspending themselves stationary in the air, without the aid of wind or thermal updraft; beating their wings backward and forward at the rate of 20-80 times a second. This accounts for the bird’s namesake “humming” sound. They can instantly accelerate in any direction and even fly upside down.

Winged Jewels and Flower Kissers

Hummingbirds are pollinators and some plants have evolved for bird pollination. They have certain characteristics in common, which either attract birds or deter competitors such as bees or butterflies.

Hummingbird flowers are usually large trumpet-shaped flowers. They mostly have no scent as hummers have no sense of smell.  These birds are specialists and have developed bills for their favorites. These hummingbird flowers are found only in areas where breeding hummers have had enough time to exert selective evolutionary pressure on the plants.  The number and variety of these flowers decrease the farther north one goes.

It has been widely known that hummingbirds are attracted to the color red whether this is entirely true is up for debate. Some have suggested that the birds are blind to the blue end of the spectrum and neglect blue flowers in favor of the more visible red ones. It is known the bees, a competitor for nectar are blind to the red end of the spectrum, adding to this theory.

This has been studied with many concluding that hummers learn from trial and error which flowers offer the best sources of nectar at a given time in the season. They will go to those flowers regardless of color.

Interestingly enough most of the flowers in North America that attract hummingbirds are red. Bringing up the theory of convergent evolution, whereby a variety of plants have adopted the very same solution as in how to attract the beautiful birds.  Red stands out against a backdrop of mostly green serving as a sort of advertisement to migrating hummers so they can quickly determine sources of nectar from unfamiliar plants.

Hummingbird Feeders

Hummingbirds are constantly pushing the envelope and extending their range northward. The proliferation of feeders seems to be the primary reason.  Feeders provide hummers with a rich food source while natural sources are not yet in bloom.

Some biologists view this supplemental feeding with some reservation. Feeders can expose hummers to unnatural predation, disease or other dangers. The feeders need to be kept clean and supplied with the correct sugar solution. There is no need to buy commercial mixes. Hummers get their nutrients from natural sources of nectar and from the insects they eat to supplement their diet.

Rufous hummingbird

Exert from:  Hummingbird.net

Penny Elliston, a licensed hummingbird rehabilitator, wrote about the dangers of relying too heavily on commercial mixes.

“Please, do not put honey, Jell-O, brown sugar, fruit, or red food coloring in your feeder! Honey ferments rapidly when diluted with water and can kill hummingbirds. The effects of red dye have not been not scientifically tested, and it is not necessary to color the water to attract birds to your feeder. Further, there are unverified reports that red dye can cause tumors in hummingbirds; this may or may not be true, but why take the chance?”

The recipe for artificial nectar:

  1. Use one part ordinary white cane sugar to four parts water.
  2. It’s not necessary to boil the water. The microorganisms that cause fermentation don’t come from the water; they are transported to the feeder on hummingbird bills.
  3. Store unused syrup in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.

This mixture approximates the average sucrose content (about 21%) of the flowers favored by North American hummingbirds, without being so sweet it attracts too many insects.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Unless you are prepared to keep the feeder clean and supplied with the correct solution please do not use a feeder. Instead consider planting a hummingbird garden.

Hummingbird Gardens 

Hummingbirds need a mix of sun and shade and a source of clean water. Many of the plants that attract them also attract butterflies and beneficial insects.  Please do not use pesticides!  This will harm the birds and kill off the insects they depend on.

It is wise to find out which hummingbirds visit your area and plant accordingly.  Here is a List of plants that feed and attract Hummingbirds to get you started.

Anna’s Hummingbird

With careful observation you will get to know which plants they prefer.  The Anna’s Hummingbird’s that frequent my garden love the pineapple sage that is a stunning feature at this time of year.

The plants that attract Hummers also attract butterflies and beneficial insects. Planting a hummingbird garden is a win-win situation for all.

Conclusion

Hummingbirds, in my opinion are a wonder of nature. They are beautiful as well as strong. They are excellent fliers and never cease to amaze me.  We in the Americas should consider ourselves lucky to have these wonderful birds.  Flower kissers, winged gems, rays of the sun or just plain hummers; whatever you call them, I call these iridescent jewels of the sky SPECTACULAR.

Strawberryindigo.

References and suggested reading:

Welcoming Wildlife to the Garden” © 2004 by Catherine J. Johnson, Susan McDiarmid and Edward R. Turner

“The World of the Hummingbird” © 1999 by Harry Thurston

Hummingbird Images-Copyright free

World of Hummingbirds (Website)

Hummingbirds.net (Website)

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Winter garden devastation

Winter: the season that tries many a gardener.  And what devastation it can bring.   We in The Pacific Northwest are fortunate enough to live in a rather mild climate, but winter does pay us a visit to varying degrees every year.  Some years an early cold snap strikes and kills off a few stunned victims. Last winter it was a beloved lavender and two pineapple sages.  Other forgotten plants in lost memory haunt the cold shadows and depths of the winter garden.

I must confess: my interest in gardening does wane this time of year.  Nothing much grows and its damn cold so I spend more time inside.  This leads me to feel guilty as the harsh season proceeds with itself and ravages the garden. I see pictures upon pictures of regal well-appointed winter gardens with  an amazing structure of tidy Evergreens dusted with sparkling snow. Everything is so cozy, so tidy….

I always plan to prepare for winter but… well,  those plans usually don’t pan out as more pressing matters arrive and thus my garden enters winter unkempt and wild. I watch as autumn’s tender leftovers; the jeweled nasturtiums and snapdragons turn to frozen flower pops after the first round of freezes.

Cold Snapdragon survivors

 Leaves litter the grass and the beds, never raked up.  Potted plants remain lining the driveway. Discarded yard art sits barren. The tiny Buddha statue looks cold and all alone, standing in a patch of frozen Sedum. Its companions, the colorful sprays of Viola and Marigold have gone, so have the stately Susans, leaving behind only Black- eyed seed heads sitting atop willowy stems, half eaten by birds and standing like sentinels along the rocky outline of the empty flower bed.

Black Eyed Susan in December
Black eyed Susans last August

I enter by the side gate crunching on frozen grass, surveying  the wreckage with dreams of last seasons color in my head. Unlike last season, so far, this has been one of the milder ones.  Lots of sun and with little rain, it is mid December but I see some flowers still in bloom:  A hardy fuchsia reigns supreme here, its smallish pink and purple blooms still attracting the odd hummingbird in this late season.

The Fuchsia

Despite my neglect, life goes on.  Nature is in command here, not me.  I am but a caretaker that’s fallen down on the job, but as I said, life goes on.  It is what we make of it as it does.  I survey the skeletons and ghosts of last summer.  All this empty space allows me to envision to plan for next years garden.  I smile as I pass the empty spot near the deck where two rose bushes will go, I can smell them already.

Old summer guilt is replaced with the hope for the future.   A cold wind blows across my path reminding me that winter has yet to officially arrive.  I step inside with my plans, my dreams and my little schemes, vowing to enjoy the winter and all of its glorious devastation knowing that it is out of this which brings the promise of spring.

I am reminded of a favorite quote:

“Nature is ever at work building and pulling down, creating and destroying, keeping everything whirling and flowing, allowing no rest but in rhythmical motion, chasing everything in endless song out of one beautiful form into another.”

John Muir

Wishing you a Beautiful Season.

Strawberryindigo.

Wild Sanctuary

Ruby-throated hummingbird public domain USFWAImage via Wikipedia

This morning I was rewarded with a moment lovely in its simplicity and rich in the beauty of life.  I watched for several minutes a Ruby throated hummingbird darting in and out of the pineapple sage. It’s tiny wings flapping at amazing speed, visiting each colorful stalk, drinking in the nectar of the brilliant scarlet flowers.  Hummingbirds are some of my favorite garden visitors.  These last days of October are a flurry of activity by humans as well as our animal friends in the wild and the not so wild.

I spent much of this beautiful day in the garden.  I find peace here working with Mother Nature.  I feel part of a greater whole that fills me with a calm serenity that is electric and full of life.

That is my garden to me.  I call it my sanctuary and it truly is.  I share my sanctuary with a few humans but mostly I share it with a cornucopia of lifeforms, from the smallest microbe in the soil to the squirrels and the birds and butterflies.  This place is truly alive.

I have spent the better part of a decade planting and shaping this place.  I have made my share of mistakes but I have learned from them. It is much easier in the long run to work with nature than against it.  Some believe that when a gardener welcomes wildlife into the garden, he or she is asking for troublesome pests as well as pretty butterflies. This couldn’t be further from the truth. 

Nature exists in balance, Mother Nature provides to all; predator and prey.  A garden in balance is in harmony with all.  By working with nature we reap many benefits and so do the wild lifeforms that visit our yards.  There is much we can do and every little bit helps.

My garden is teeming with life and it is by no accident.  My obsession with plants is deep and true. I must have hundreds upon hundreds of types and kinds that spring up throughout the year.  Many are native plants to my region which is the Pacific Northwest. Many are flowers that are appealing to bees and insects and nectar rich providing food for hummingbirds and others.

I see it as my mission as a gardener, as a lover of the land and nature to do my small part in helping the flora and fauna of our fantastic planet.  In this I feel that my garden is not only a sanctuary to me but to many.  Urban gardens can provide a refuge for many species that have been forced out of their natural habitats.  Our wild areas are vanishing  and we gardeners have a huge role to play.  Our urban and not so urban gardens link up making a larger habitat for wildlife.

No space is too small.  A potted plant on a back patio or a window box planted with the right plant can provide food all year.

No effort is too small.  There are many ways to help. It can be as easy or as complicated as you choose.  Typically wildlife have three basic needs, the essentials;  shelter, water and food.

Three Essentials For Wildlife

Shelter

   A large Evergreen shrub can provide shelter for many species as can other types of plant life such as climbers.  A pile of logs or rocks can serve as shelter to many ground dwelling species. Leave a bit of leaf litter on the ground to protect overwintering insects.  Simply leaving a wild corner of the yard can help.

Water

Water is essential for all life but it can become a scarce commodity for wildlife in the city. A pond or bird bath can spell welcome relief for the thirsty. A plastic plant saucer with a few stones on the bottom filled with clean water could be a lifeline for many.

Food

Use plants native to your particular region.  Create biodiversity with as many varieties as possible. There are a number of plant species that provide food for wildlife.  From nectar to pollen to seeds and berries.  Once a flower has bloomed, typically gardeners remove the spent seedhead.  This also removes a valuable winter food source for birds. A bit of untidiness in the garden is no crime, in fact a more natural appearance can be quite comely and you will be rewarded time and time again with the wonder of nature beckoning at your back door.

Butterfly
Image by Travelling Steve via Flickr

Happy Gardening!

Strawberryindigo.

                

References and suggested reading

  • Planthropology: The myth, mysteries, and miracles of my garden favorites.  Ken Druse ©2008.
  • Create a wildlife garden. Christine and Michael Lavelle ©2007
  • Attracting birds, butterflies and other winged wonders to your backyard. Kris Wetherbee ©2004