How to Attract Hummingbirds

Hummingbirds. Tiny balls of fire that blaze through the air and show off their brilliant colors. Many people enjoy watching the aerial displays of hummingbirds. Others are awed by the ability of hummingbirds to fly backwards. And then you have the people that enjoy watching hummingbirds fight. These little birds will voraciously defend a valuable nectar or sugar source from intruders.  Watching hummingbirds jockey for position at a feeder can provide hours of entertainment. Want to create hummingbird habitat in your own yard? This blog will give you some basic tips to enrich your landscape in a way that can attract more hummingbirds by providing them with a valuable buffet of energy sources.

Ruby-throated hummingbird male feeding on kalanchoe flower

Enrich your landscape – The first step to making your yard attractive to hummingbirds is to dress up as a colorful (preferably red, pink, or orange) flower or plant. Hummingbirds are attracted to brightly-colored plants because they associate them with nectar sources. I recommend that beginners use an azalea costume, while more experienced gardeners/birders can mimic trumpet honeysuckle or cardinal flowers. In addition to these plants, sages and beebalms, as well as plants with red/orange/pink tubular flowers, are also good choices for providing a nectar source. Use plants native to your area to reduce the risk of harmful invasives. For more info about what plants to use in your yard, check out this great link from Audubon (http://www.audubon.org/content/nectar-sources-region).  In addition to native flowering plants, having shrubs or trees for natural cover is great for all birds. Hummingbirds use small perches so try not to cut off every small branch from your bushes and trees. They often use lichen, moss, twigs, and spider webs to build their tiny nests on small forks and branches.

Image result for cardinal plant  Image result for trumpet honeysuckle hummingbird

Image result for beebalm    Image result for hummingbird nest arkive    Clockwise from top left –> Female Ruby-throat feeding from Cardinal Flower, Male at a Trumpet Honeysuckle, Hummingbird feeding from a Bee Balm (Monarda genus), and a hummingbird nest. 

Provide an extra food source – If you are able to grow some of the plants mentioned above in your yard or garden, they will provide a great food supply for hungry hummingbirds. You can also buy a feeder from the store for under $10. Most feeders are red with flower-shaped holes to attract the hummingbirds. Instructions on how to make sugar water for your feeder is provided at the end of this blog. I don’t recommend trying to live like a hummingbird. You might have a tough time working on a daily sugar high while missing out on important nutrition provided by foods such as lasagna and pizza. Hummingbirds do supplement their diet with protein from insects, so maybe eating like a hummingbird wouldn’t be so tough after all.

Adult male  Image result for hummingbird feeder

(Left photo: Black-chinned Hummingbird by Sam Wilson, Phoenix, AZ, 2007. Right photo: worldofhummingbirds.com)

Provide a water source – Hummingbirds also enjoy bathing, so feel free to grab a pink or red squirt gun so you can spray them when they’re at the feeder. Who doesn’t want a shower while eating? The other option is to provide a bird bath or misting device, but that’s not as fun.

Image result for hummingbird bath

Reduce pesticide use – Because hummingbirds feed on flowering plants and munch on insects, spraying pesticides on your garden can prove harmful to them and other wildlife. Allow the birds to take care of your insect problem. Though, there was one summer where I was being hounded by gnats as a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher danced around in the trees and taunted me. If you’re having major insect problems, do some research and find an alternative solution that won’t be dangerous to the birds eating the insects. You should also completely rid your yard of ants, as they are often attracted to sweet things and can overrun a feeder. This is best accomplished by borrowing an anteater from your local zoo. You may end up with holes and mounds of dirt in your yard, but at least there won’t be any ants competing with the hummingbirds.

Now is the prime time for hummingbirds to move through the U.S. and build nests, so hopefully you can put these tips into practice and start attracting these beautiful birds to your yard! Unfortunately, there is only one species that frequents the eastern U.S. – the Ruby-throated. People in places like California and Texas get the jackpot with numerous species. Of course, all of these states pale in comparison to the rich diversity found in Central and South America. Enjoy some more photos of awesome hummingbirds! Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to down some sucrose and run around my yard really fast with a red bib while chasing off the competition.

Two rufous hummingbird chicks sitting in nest

Male rufous hummingbirds feeding

Rufous Hummingbirds

Image result for anna's hummingbird

Anna’s Hummingbird

How to make hummingbird food –> Mix a solution of 1 cup of water and 1/4 cup of pure white sugar in a small pot. Bring the solution to a boil and turn off the heat once the sugar has dissolved. Allow the mixture to completely cool and then it can be poured into your feeder. Please do not use brown sugar, honey, or other substitutes as this can harm or even kill a hummingbird that needs sucrose to survive. There is also no need to add any food dyes, as they may contain harmful chemicals. You should clean feeders about once a week with a vinegar-water (1-4 ratio like the sugar water) solution. 

 

 

Tasty Bird Cereals

While chasing falcons for my graduate research this morning, I got a bit silly and came up with a list of bird-themed cereals. I plan to contact General Mills about marketing these soon. Let the head-shaking and eye-rolling begin!

Eurasian hoopoe feeding chick in mid-air

Hoopoes are some of my favorite birds . . . and the inspiration for this list.

Bird-flavored Cereals

• Apple Chats
• Corn Crakes
• Cuckoo Puffins
• Ducky Charms
• Fruit Hoopoes
• Goldeneye Grahams
• Honey Bunches of Hoatzin
• Honey Nut Vireos
• Raisin Brant
• Rice Kiskadees
• Shredded Wheatear
• Special Jay
• TUTI Pebbles

Black-capped vireo female

Who wouldn’t want Honey Nut Vireos?!

 

Superbird: The Song of a Heron

A few summers ago I was doing bird work in southern Indiana. I spent much of my time on an old army base that had been converted to a wildlife refuge. During the drives out to my sites, I would often spot a Great Blue Heron wading in the ponds and streams throughout the refuge. After consistently seeing a heron by one creek crossing, I decided to name the heron ‘Jerome’. Every time I saw a blue heron I would call out “Jerome!” My coworkers tried to tell me that Jerome couldn’t be everywhere on the refuge, but they didn’t know Jerome like I did. Jerome was a superbird and therefore my next birdsong parody is dedicated to him. With apologies to Five for Fighting, here is Superbird.

Great blue heron wading through water

Superbird (It’s Not Easy)

I can’t stand to fly
I don’t feel that free
I’m just out to find
The beautiful blue sea

I’m more than a duck
I’m more than a crane
I’m more than some pretty bird out in the rain
And it’s not easy to be me

I wish that I could sing
Rest beneath the trees
Eat bugs on the wing
Without any bee sting

It may sound absurd, to call like a reed
Taking water baths down in the stream
If I am disturbed, you better take heed
My bill will cut your skin and make you bleed
And it’s not easy to be me

Up, up and away, away from me
Well that’s alright
You can still sleep sound tonight
I don’t have rabies or anything

I can’t stand to fly
I don’t feel that free
Birds weren’t meant to ride
With legs out in the breeze

I’m only a bird with a silly long beak
Digging for juicy frogs in this mountain stream
Only a bird with a silly long beak
Longing for special wings outside of me
Outside of me, outside of me [x2]

I’m only a bird with a silly long beak
I’m only a bird looking for a dream
I’m only a bird with a silly long beak
And it’s not easy
It’s not easy to be me

Powerful Life Lessons from Nature

My last two posts detailed some of the lessons I’ve learned through my experiences in nature.  Sometimes I don’t learn my lessons very well. For instance, I’ve repeatedly walked through seas of ticks and gotten caught in thorny shrubs. One of my least favorite things is being surprised by greenbrier. Time after time I have been walking in the woods, searching for birds, only to be tripped up by that evil plant. Greenbrier likes to hide beneath small trees and shrubs in the understory, then grab your ankles with its thorny stems as you pass by. You begin to feel the thorns cutting through your legs as you’re lying face-down on the ground, covered in mud. Things get really bad when I’m wearing knee boots, which provide less traction than hiking shoes. That’s why I refuse to go near cliffs while doing field work. I just know a greenbrier plant is waiting to launch me over the edge with a stabbing shot to the ankle. Some birds actually like to nest around greenbrier or thorny rose bushes. Lucky me.

Wood thrushWood thrush feeding

Wood Thrush enjoy hiding from me and placing their nests in thorny bushes.

Greenbrier on left (Wellesley College), mutiflora rose on right. Imagine having to reach through a tangle of multiflora rose to find a bird nest.

Stinging nettle is another plant I’m not particularly fond of. These nettles tend to be found in wet or swampy areas. They release chemicals which cause a stinging or burning sensation as they brush against your skin. They can also pass through thin field pants, which I almost always wear when hiking in a wet environment because they dry quickly. You know what’s really not fun? Falling face-first into stinging nettle after tripping on a mudbank. I’ve also hand to use my bare hands to grab plants while traversing a steep mudbank, only to realize I was grabbing nettle. On another occasion, I avoided the nettle but fell into a creek instead. Hiking for a whole day while your feet and pants are soaking wet is the best. Life lesson? Nature is out to get you. Also, some plants are evil and conniving. The best way to deal with nettle is to smack it down and create a clear path. If life gives you lemons, cut life with a machete and throw the lemons back. How do you like that burn?!

There are also trees, such as black locusts, that sprout large thorns.  Two times I have reached out my hand to steady myself on a tree while navigating a steep hill (I didn’t want to slide down like a bobsled), only to be met with pain and bleeding. Placing your hand against mini spears is not advised. Life lesson? Sometimes it’s better to fall on your face and feel silly, rather than to try to control everything and experience pain. Why did I even count birds and chase after Wood Thrush?

Don’t look at me like that! You’ll make me feel guilty!

A few summers ago, I had the privilege of walking around the Gulf Coast looking for beach-nesting shorebirds the year after the big oil spill. My typical day involved walking 8-10 miles across beaches around the coast or on islands in the Gulf. There was usually no shade and temperatures were often in the 90’s with high humidity. I’ve never drank more water in my life than I did during those 2 months. One day, I drank 4 liters of water and 64 ounces of powerade. Stupid birds. Why do they have to nest in such brutal conditions? Go find a shade tree or nest in the winter. The main birds I followed were Wilson’s and Snowy Plovers, but I also recorded oystercatchers and terns which constantly screamed and dive-bombed me. Plovers often run for a distance, stop and look around, and then run again. That’s basically what I did, but without wings. Life lesson? Humans must suffer so that 7-inch birds can live. Or maybe great treasures (conserving birds + habitats) must come at a great cost? Nah, I’ll go with the first one.

Wilson  Least Tern Photo

Left – Wilson’s Plover © Cleber, Right – Least Tern aka “Little Screamer” © Gerrit Vyn

I had some other interesting adventures in the Gulf Coast involving boats which I’ll talk about in a future post. We can learn quite a bit from observing nature and I’m grateful for the opportunities that God has blessed me with – from handling raptors to running after plovers to following thrushes. Solomon was considered the wisest man in the world, and he often used examples in nature to teach lessons in the proverbs of the Bible. Why do I keep plunging into these experiences in the wild? Probably because I’m a sucker for punishment. Or maybe it’s to care for God’s creation and have experiences like these.

Adventures in Birdland

I always enjoy spending time in God’s creation, especially during the spring when sun shines into my bedroom at 6:30AM and the insects are biting and the ragweed and pollen are out. I guess the flowers, trees, and animals make up for that. Here are some things I’ve experienced while birding and doing field research over the past few weeks. Spring migration is underway and birds are beginning to set up breeding grounds after spending the winter in the tropics or South America. Only 2.4% of what follows was made up just now.

My master’s research focuses on American Kestrels at the Blue Grass Army Depot in Kentucky.. Kestrels are small falcons with beautiful plumage that primarily feed on insects, small rodents, and an occasional bird such as a Golden Eagle. I’ve been following kestrels to observe their behavior and to determine the possible functions of tail-pumping. Kestrels often pump their tail while perched on a bare tree or a powerline. Kestrels are secondary cavity nesters, which means they choose cavities excavated by other animals. Kestrels will often nest in an old woodpecker hole. Fortunately for me, there are a number of nest boxes at the depot which I will be monitoring. Many of my kestrel pairs have laid around 5 eggs which will hopefully be hatching in a couple of weeks. Then I’ll get to see young kestrels!

American kestrel chicks in nest

American kestrel male at nest in Saguaro cactus

Is this nest comfortable?

I’ve gone birding several times in the last 2 weeks looking for the warblers which are migrating through Kentucky. Last week during an Ornithology field trip, I had the opportunity to witness a Sharp-shinned Hawk charging at a Great Horned Owl! This hawk preys on songbirds so many birds in the area became very agitated and started mobbing the hawk! The owl took that opportunity to fly to another tree, where it was murdered by crows (murder is the term for a group of crows). I also enjoyed seeing the Baltimore Orioles (not the baseball team, they’re not quite as pretty).

Sharp-shinned hawk resting on a branchGreat horned owl in flight

Left – Sharp-shinned Hawk, Right – Great Horned Owl

Adult male

Baltimore Oriole – © The Nature Nook 2009

Among the warblers I’ve seen lately are American Redstarts, Bay-breasted, Blackburnian, Cape May, Chestnut-sided and Magnolia. Below are some pictures of these warblers in alphabetical order.

Breeding maleBreeding male

Breeding male Adult Cape May warbler

Adult Male Breeding Magnolia Warbler Photo

Top left – © Linda Peterson, top right © Danny Bales, center left – © Kevin Bolton, bottom left – © Jim McCree, Bottom right – © Gerrit Vyn.

There is one warbler which has eluded my grasp for the past three years. I spent the past three summers doing point counts in southern Indiana and was never able to see a Black-throated Blue Warbler during migration. In fact, the black-throated blue has become my nemesis. Like every compelling story, the protagonist (me) must endure some setbacks and disappointments before rising up to conquer his nemesis. Yesterday I finally heard a Black-throated Blue Warbler for the first time! Of course I rushed up the trail and peered into the trees, only to be foiled by the foliage of leaves. I finally heard my nemesis but a visual still eludes me. Oh well, this will make my moment of victory that much sweeter.

Black-throated blue warbler perched on branch

My nemesis is very handsome and crafty.

More stories of adventures in nature will be forthcoming. Tomorrow I’m headed out to chase after some more kestrels and perhaps stumble upon a porcupine. Not literally, I hope. In the meantime, I’m going to create an artificial intelligence to protect the world from destruction. What could possibly go wrong?

Return of the Falcons

After a long hiatus, I’m back to blogging! After the 3 or 4 people who read this post stop cheering (or groaning; as long as I get a response I’m happy), I’ll talk about what I’ve been doing over the last few months. Life has been crazy since I decided to go back to school after a six-year break. I’m pursuing a master’s degree in biology and am excited that I get to study falcons! I managed to convince my advisor, through relentless email spamming and crying outside his door, to allow me to do my research on American Kestrels.

American Kestrels are the smallest falcons in North America and are sometimes called “sparrow hawks”. Like most birds of prey, kestrels exhibit reversed sexual dimorphism, which means that the females are larger than their male counterparts. Males are easily distinguished from females by their blue wings, black-tipped rufous tails, and more buffy-colored underparts. Both sexes have striking black lines on the face, which act as eye black to reduce glare from the sun. I’m not 100% sure that’s true, but it seems like a reasonable explanation.

American kestrel pair, male (left) female (right)

Most American Kestrels prefer open habitats, such as farmlands, scattered woodlots, and pastures. Kestrels are well adapted to agricultural fields and will often spend their days perched on power lines, searching for tasty morsels to devour. Though they are small, kestrels have a fierce appetite and have been known to take down beavers and mountain goats. One time, a particularly aggressive kestrel in Boston killed a porcupine and used the quills to kebob a few mice. At any rate, kestrels primarily feed on insects and small rodents, but will also eat songbirds, snakes, lizards and an occasional dragon . . . fly.

The usual method of hunting for a kestrel involves sitting on a perch and scanning the area for potential prey. One cool exception to this is when a kestrel engages in “hover-hunting”. Basically, a kestrel “hovers” by facing into the wind and using outstretched wings and a fanned tail to stay in place. Below is a clip showing a kestrel hover-hunting. The kestrel in this clip is a European species because I couldn’t find very good video of American Kestrels. I normally can’t stand Europeans and their stupid metric system, but I do like kestrels. If you can’t sense the sarcasm, you should probably stop reading this post.

Kestrels really are beautiful birds and I’m happy to have the opportunity to study them. My research is going to focus on an interesting behavior called tail-pumping. In my next post, I’ll talk about potential explanations for why kestrels pump their tails and provide some information about the breeding behavior of kestrels. I’m hoping to use a video camera during my research to document the social life of kestrels and produce a new reality TV series. If people can become famous for acting like idiots on camera, why can’t kestrels become famous for being beautiful and smart? May you soar like a kestrel!

American kestrel male with wings outstreched

Counting Birds

I just finished up my third season of doing songbird point counts in Indiana.  The project I worked on involved the Smithsonian, Oregon State University, the Institute for Bird Populations and the Army Engineer Corps.  I would go to a number of points each morning and spend ten minutes at a site recording all the birds I heard or saw.  In case you’re wondering, it is possible to feel a bird without hearing or seeing it.  You could have owl perch on your shoulder or sense a bird like Spiderman senses enemies.  My boss didn’t understand one time when I wrote “gut feeling” for the detection type after sensing two Wood Thrushes were in the bushes.  Were there two birds in the bush?  I don’t know, but I did hold a Wood Thrush in my hand later on in the season.  I feel like there is a saying I could insert here, but nothing’s coming to mind.  Huh, oh well.  Here is a picture of me holding a Wood Thrush from last year.

Wood Thrushes are related to robins and have a beautiful song; which was a good thing because I’ve had to listen to them for the past three summers.  We studied their behavior, checked on nests, measured vegetation and tracked young and adult birds.  More on Wood Thrush in a later post. but right now I want to talk more about point counts.

The variety of bird species recorded during a count often varies based on the time of day and the specific site.  There were some points where I would always get the same birds.  Some birds, like Acadian Flycatchers and Red-eyed Vireos, are so common in southern Indiana that I would detect at least one at almost every point.  While most birds quit singing sometime in the late morning, Red-eyed Vireos will sing throughout the day and are known a marathon singers.  Their song is kind of boring to be honest but at least they make an interesting noise when they are agitated.  Their annoyed/angry call sounds like a harsh rapsy ‘waaah’.  Sometimes I imitate vireos for fun when I hear them call out.

Red-eyed Vireo PhotoAcadian Flycatcher Photo

(Red-eyed Vireo on left and Acadian Flycatcher on right from allaboutbirds.org)

I have more information and pictures to share with you about some of the birds I have encountered, but I’m saving that for the next post.  Right now, here is another bird song parody I wrote called “Counting Birds”.  “Counting Birds” is set to the tune of the popular song, “Counting Stars” by OneRepublic.

 

 Counting Birds
(To the tune of “Counting Stars” by OneRepublic)

Intro Chorus
Lately I’ve been, I’ve been losing sleep
Dreaming about the birds that we could see.
But baby, I’ve been, I’ve been looking hard,
Said no more counting cow herds
We’ll be counting birds
Yeah we’ll be counting birds.

Verse 1
I hear this finch with a singing whine
Sing his heart on the powerline
That goldfinch is in the pines
Seek him out and you shall find

Fast, but I’m not that fast
Quick, but that will not last
I don’t think a place this vast
Could keep a finch from flying past

Pre-chorus
I, see something so bright
It must be the right wing
I, hear cheerful fast song
Oh how that male does sing
I could cry, could cry, could cry
Every bird that sings out makes me feel alive

Chorus
Lately I’ve been, I’ve been losing sleep
Dreaming about the birds that we could see.
But baby, I’ve been, I’ve been looking hard,
Said no more counting cow herds
We’ll be counting birds
Lately I’ve been, I’ve been losing sleep
Dreaming about the birds that we could see.
But baby, I’ve been, I’ve been looking hard,
Said no more counting cow herds
We’ll be, we’ll be counting birds

Verse 2
I see this bird, soaring in the sky
It starts to coo and it’s not shy
Dove is a four lettered word
Take those wings and watch them fly

Fast, but I’m not that fast
Quick, but that will not last
I don’t think a place this vast
Could keep a dove from flying past

Pre-chorus
I, see something so white,
It must be the right wing
I, hear cooing so long
It must be a dove thing
I could cry, could cry, could cry
Every bird that sings out makes me feel alive

Repeat Chorus

Bridge
Take those wings, watch them fly
Flapping and soaring across the great sky
Repeat x3

Every bird that sings out makes me feel alive

Repeat Chorus