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)
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Use one part ordinary white cane sugar to four parts water.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
World of Hummingbirds (Website)