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. 

 

 

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Angry Birds?!

Did you know that birds can be quite fierce? Hummingbirds are well-loved by many birders for their beauty and their ability to hover around flower gardens. Many hummingbirds are just over 3 inches, yet will aggressively chase off birds much larger than them. Blackbirds, chickadees, and swallows often dive-bomb other birds larger than them as well. Then you have the raptors (not the Jurassic Park kind) who will even attack humans! Why do these birds act like this? Do they have a hero complex? Are they training for starling wars? All these questions may or may not be answered in this blog, as I take a look at some angry birds. No happy birds allowed!

Am I happy? Or angry?

The main character of the Angry Birds app is almost certainly based on a cardinal. Male cardinals are bright red, have a wonderful song repertoire, and are often featured on Christmas cards. Females are brown, with an occasional dash of red. Many birders enjoy seeing these birds, but researchers who have dealt with cardinals up close often have a different attitude. In order to track individuals and populations, researchers will often catch and band birds. A small metal or plastic band is placed around a bird’s tarsus that will uniquely identify the bird if it is caught again. If the bird is captured again at another site, or even the same site, the information about movements and inferences about habitat use can prove to be valuable. Measurements such as wing length and weight are also recorded. Some birds will stay calm when captured, others squirm and make some noise. Then you have cardinals. Cardinals are the bane of a bander’s existence. They will often scream incessantly when in the hand and will usually attempt to bite the handler. They have a large beak for cracking seeds, which can also be used to cause pain to human hands. While assisting with a banding project this past summer, I managed to handle 5 cardinals without incident before getting bit by an angry youngster. I glared at him and threatened to feed him to a Red-tailed Hawk. He responded by piercing my eardrums with his screaming. Anyway, I’m planning on developing a new TV show about a pair of birds who plan revenge after being betrayed in the political arena. It’s called House of Cardinals.

Male northern cardinal calling

The cardinals are not impressed with my pun.

Another angry bird is the chickadee. Chickadees are often appreciated for their playful personality and their frequent appearances at backyard feeders. They often will act as acrobats, hanging upside-down on tree branches or while extracting seeds from a pine cone. Chickadees are quite active and very vocal. In fact, research has revealed evidence that chickadees may convey the danger level of a potential predator by varying the number of “dees” in their calls! They are also little devils. When in the hand, they often try to hammer your hand with their bill. The good news is that they are so small, that the hammering actually tickles. I’m just glad there aren’t any chickadees the size of a turkey, because the hammering would probably rip a hole in my hand.

Image result for chickadeeImage result for chickadee acrobat

Photo on left © Jerry Acton, February 2007. Photo on right © Mark Davis.

Next up are hummingbirds. I once spent hours watching Ruby-throated Hummingbirds duel for prime positions at a sugar feeder.  With an average length of around 8 cm and a weight between 3-6 grams, these fiesty birds are quite the fighters. Individuals often spend a lot of time chasing away potential rivals. Sometimes this leads to a chasing cycle, where one hummingbird, we’ll call her Anna, leaves her perch on a feeder to pursue a rival. While Anna is busy, a male swoops in to sip some food. Anna sees the newcomer and chases him away from the feeder. Meanwhile, the first female Anna chase away comes back and . . . well, you get the idea! Hummingbirds will often dive-bomb larger birds and even people, usually to protect their territory or defend their young. Their aggressiveness is probably key to their survival as tiny members of the avian world. On a final note, though bulls are often associated with becoming enraged by the color red, the truth is they are usually color-blind. However, hummingbirds are attracted to bright colors such as red and pink. I even had hummingbirds almost fly into my face when wearing a red shirt or holding a pink squirt gun!

Ruby-throated hummingbird male feeding on kalanchoe flowerBlue-capped hummingbird on branch

Left – Male Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Right – Blue-capped Hummingbird.

There are more angry birds to talk about in my next post, but for now, I’ll leave you with some pictures of angry owls. As you spend time outdoors this week, watch out for the birds. You never know when one might want to bite your face or redecorate your deck. Stay away from people who show you an angry bird. Finally, you should bet your life savings on the Louisville Cardinals to win the College Football Playoffs and the Arizona Cardinals to win the Super Bowl. Don’t mess with cardinals!

Image result for angry owlImage result for great horned owl

Left – Burrowing Owls may display when threatened. Right – Great Horned Owl from National Geographic.

 

 

 

 

 

The Amazing Lives of Hummingbirds: Part 3

Are you ready to learn how hummingbirds can fly backwards?  Would you like to see some awesome pictures of beautiful hummingbirds? Would you like to hear a crazy fact that is actually true?  Let’s take one more peek into the incredible world of hummingbirds!

Flying backwards is difficult.  I tried it once with a set of wings that I made using a lightweight aluminum frame, 200 mockingbird feathers and super glue.  I ran up to the top of a steep hill and jumped backwards while rapidly flapping my makeshift wings.  The end result was me lying on the ground at the bottom of the hill gasping in pain while my friends laughed and made fun of me.  Apparently, human limbs aren’t made for flying.  Hummingbirds, however, seem to be supremely designed for flying forwards and backwards.  In my last post I said I would explain how hummingbirds can fly backwards.  Well, during my research I’ve discovered that only recently have scientists begun to understand some of the mechanisms which allow hummingbirds to fly backwards.  I won’t bore you with the technical details as not everything is even understood yet, but I will mention a few things that seem to play a role in this phenomenon.

Hummingbirds have a unique anatomical setup that allows for quick movements. They can flap their wings at a much higher rate than other birds and their tiny frame makes quick turns and head movements easier.  According to a recent study published in The Journal of Experimental Biology by Nir Sapir and Robert Dudley, when a hummingbird flies backwards, its body posture becomes more upright and the frequency of its wing beats rises.  The scientists expected that the increase in wing usage, combined with the upright posture, would produce more drag and cause the bird to consume more oxygen.  What they found was that hummingbirds actually were as efficient while flying backwards as they are during normal flight!  If you’re interested in reading more on this subject, click here.

Now let’s take a look at some more cool hummingbirds!  The Marvelous Spatuletail is a hummmingbird found in a limited range of forest edges in Peru.  They have just four tail feathers.  The male’s outer tail feathers end in beautiful discs called spatules.  During courtship displays, males will fly around a female while showing off their spatules.  “Hey girl!  Look at me!  I have the biggest and prettiest spatules!  I’m definitely more fit that than wimp hovering beside you!”  Unfortunately, the Marvelous Spatuletail is on the endangered list.  This is primarily due to the loss of habitat and the fact that it has a very limited range.  There have been efforts over the last few years to conserve areas and develop more native plants for the spatuletail.

Marvellous Spatuletail perched on a branch

(Top – picture by Roger Ahlman. Bottom – BBC Nature)

Ready for a picture frenzy of colorful hummingbirds?

 

(Top – Fiery-throated Hummingbird -> Glenn Bartley, Bottom – Rainbow Starfrontlet -> conservationbirding.org)

(Top – Golden-tailed Sapphire, Bottom – Andean Hillstar)

(Top – Violet-crowned Woodnymph, Bottom – Rufous Hummingbird -> Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

To finish off this blog series on hummingbirds, I’m going to tell you something crazy.  Crazy and true.  A friend and I were once held up at gunpoint by a military policeman with a guard dog while surveying for birds on a naval base in Indiana.  As it turns out, we weren’t in any trouble.  Everything was cleared up after we showed our ids and were checked in with the base.  Security hadn’t received clearance for the license plate on the government vehicle we were driving due to a miscommunciation.  The most exciting part was when the mp told us to stay still and let him know if we needed to scratch ourselves or wipe our faces.  Apparently the dog would have taken us out if we made sudden moves.  Of course, at that exact moment, I felt an itch on the back of my neck.  I just calmly stood still and looked at the dog who seemed friendly but probably would have mauled me if I had done a jumping jack.  Hold on, what’s that?  You were expecting a true story about hummingbirds?  Okay then.  Hummingbirds are so aggressive in defending their territories, that they have been known to take on hawks and eagles!

Hopefully you enjoyed this journey through the world of hummingbirds.  I’ve decided to leave the topic of my next blog post up to you.  Below is a poll with four choices.  Feel free to vote.  You can also feel free to never read my blog again.  Most likely, four people will vote in the poll and each will choose a different answer.  That’s no problem because I am like a hummingbird.  I can fly backwards, eat sweet things and dance for the ladies.  Don’t come near my territory though.

The Amazing Lives of Hummingbirds: Part 2

Hummingbirds are cool little creatures with amazing capabilities and interesting lives.  In case you missed my first blog on hummingbirds, you can check it out here.  This post will examine the fierce nature of hummingbirds and take a look at a few of the unique species.  Stories will be told, pictures will be shown and battles will be fought.  Are you ready to capture a brief glimpse of hummingbirds with swords battling Golden Eagles in epic sky duels over the jungles of Hawaii?  I sure hope not, because I don’t have any pictures of that.

The Sword-billed Hummingbird has the longest bill in comparison to its size of any bird on earth.  The “sword” can grow up to 5 inches long, which is fairly impressive considering the entire length of the bird from tail tip to bill tip is between 8 and 10 inches!  Scientists aren’t certain what all of the uses of such a large bill might be, but some believe that males might attempt to attract females based on bill size.  The length of their bills does enable them to access nectar in longer flowers.  Of course, Sword-billed Hummingbirds would have difficulty feeding from a feeder, because they must balance their bills so that the weight does not strain their necks!  Sword-billed Hummingbirds can be found in the high elevations of the Andes Mountains of South America.  I’d like to imagine that the males use their swords to fence over females but this has not been documented.

(Sword-billed Hummingbird – www.insightintonature.com)
 (www.birdphotographers.net)

White-tipped Sicklebills are hummingbirds with unusually curved bills.  According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, these birds specialize in feeding on nectar from Heliconia and Centropogon plants.  There are hundreds of different plants within those families but the point is, sicklebills use their curved bill to get nectar from flowers that the average hummingbird could not access.  Unlike most hummingbirds, sicklebills will often perch at the flower they are feeding from.  The range of White-tipped Sicklebills extends from Costa Rica down to the northern edge of Peru.

Eutoxeres aquila

(White-tipped Sicklebill © Dusan Brinkhuizen)

Giant Hummingbirds are monsters in the hummingbird world weighing in at around 20 grams with a length of about 8 inches.  These hummingbirds spend much of their time in open habitats throughout the Andes Mountains. They fly much slower than their smaller counterparts and occasionally throw in quick glide during flight.  Though not as colorful as most hummingbirds, the Giant Hummingbird is still a sight to see.

File:Patagona gigas.jpg

(Giant Hummingbird)

Perhaps the most familiar hummingbird in the U.S. is the Ruby-throated Hummingbird.  Found in the eastern range of North America during breeding season, these hummingbirds are very common in parks, gardens and backyards.  Ruby-throated Hummingbirds can easily be attracted to your yard if you set up a hummingbird feeder.  The solution for the feeder involves four parts water per one part sugar.  Be sure to use white sugar as other forms of sugar can be harmful to a hummingbird’s digestive system or result in mold which can be fatal.  Cleaning the feeder about once a week is important as well.  Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are named for the bright red patch on the male’s throat.

Two summers ago, some friends and I set up a hummingbird feeder outside the trailer home we were living for the season.  We had no television but we did have the entertainment of watching hummingbirds battle for feeder supremacy!  It was hilarious to see a hummingbird sipping from the feeder while feverishly looking around for potential rivals.  Sometimes a female would be at the feeder and notice another female.  A fight would ensue and while the the females were busy, a male would quickly come in for some tasty sugar water.  Then the female who was victorious would come back to chase off the male!  After that, another female would arrive and the cycle would continue for hours with as many as six different hummingbirds duking it out.  I’m pretty sure some of them used up all their energy just chasing each other away from the feeder!  Once in a while, two birds would share the food for a short period of time.  Another interesting thing about hummingbirds is that they have great color vision and can see ultraviolet light.  Ruby-throated Hummingbirds seem to favor bright pink, red and orange colors.  Several times a hummingbird would come close to one of my friends who was wearing a bright pink shirt!  I also saw a hummingbird hovering over a red watergun once.  During my time doing point counts in Indiana, I would occasionally record a hummingbird in the woods which was always cool.  Usually I would hear the beating of their wings before I saw them.

Adult maleFemale/ immature type

(Top – Male Ruby-throated Hummingbird © Michael Hogan, Bottom – Female/immature hummingbird © Jason Means)

So how do hummingbirds fly backwards?  You’ll have to wait until part 3 of my blog series on The Amazing Lives of Hummingbirds.  Or you can Google it, but that would ruin the suspense.  There will be more brilliantly . . . stupid word just took me four tries to spell it right.  The first two times I typed in rilliantly and the next two times I accidentally capitalized the B.  Anyway, there will be more brillianty . . argh I hate typing when I’m tired.  THERE WILL BE MORE BRILLIANTLY COLORED HUMMINGBIRDS TO LOOK AT IN MY NEXT BLOG POST!  That’s better.  There may also be an unbelievable story to tell.  May you fight the battles in your life with the ferocity of a hummingbird and may all your sugary dreams come true!

The Amazing Lives of Hummingbirds

For the last three years, I have attached miniature cameras to the backs of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds in an attempt to better understand their life and behavior.  Why?  Well who doesn’t want to know what a brilliantly-colored three and a half inch long flying creature does with its time?  What’s that?  You want to see the videos?  Okay, you called my bluff.  Even though I haven’t placed cameras on hummingbirds, it sounds like a pretty neat idea.  Perhaps you’d be willing to settle for interesting details about hummingbirds and some really cool pictures?  Let’s dive into the world of hummingbirds!

(Ruby-throated Hummingbird – National Geographic)

Hummingbirds are among the smallest birds in the world and are known for their vibrant colors and amazing agility.  These miniature flying machines are named for the humming sound that emanates from their rapidly beating wings.  Hummingbird wings have been recorded beating up to 80 times per second!  That’s insane!  The craziness doesn’t stop there.  During flight, a hummingbird’s heart may beat over 1,200 times per minute!  For comparison, the human heart beats over 150 times per minute during strenuous exercises.  These little fellows are very quick and extremely active.  In case you’re wondering, hummingbirds have a speed of about 25-30 mph in flight.

Want to learn another mind-blowing fact?  Recent studies have shown that male Anna’s Hummingbirds can reach over 60 mph during courtship dives!  These hummingbirds can experience close to 10 Gs of force according to a researcher from Cal-Berkeley.  I’ve been on a roller coaster with 4 Gs of force which pressed me back against the seat and tightened the muscles in my face.  I don’t even want to imagine what 10 Gs would do to me!  Anna’s Hummingbirds live around the Pacific Coast of the U.S. and like most hummingbirds, enjoy eating nectar from flowers and plants.  They also eat small insects.  One other cool thing about the Anna’s Hummingbird is that it has a normal body temperature of close to 107 degrees Fahrenheit!  The Cornell Lab of Ornithology explains that when outside temperatures fall, the hummingbird goes into torpor, which is a state where breathing and heart rates slow down while the body cools.  Torpor is basically a shortened form of hibernation and allows the hummingbird to survive when food is scarce or the weather grows cold.  Years ago when I was visiting California I had the privilege of seeing some of these cool birds.

Anna

(Anna’s Hummingbird – Edgar Paul Coral)

Ready to learn about the smallest bird in the world?  Weighing between 1.6 and 2.0 grams (~ 0.05-0.07 ounces), the Bee Hummingbird grows to about 2.3 inches long and lives in Cuba.  Let’s do something fun here,  How many Bee Hummingbirds would equal the largest bird in the world?  The Ostrich can weigh up to 350 lbs, which is 158,757 grams.  This means that approximately 79,378 Bee Hummingbirds would be needed to equal the weight of a large Ostrich!  As you might imagine, these little birds have to eat a lot to keep up with their high levels of activity and an individual may sip nectar from over 1,000 flowers in a single day.  Bee Hummingbirds construct tiny nests made out of twigs, moss and spiderwebs.  Now there might be someone who’s wondering what the song of these birds sounds like.  Actually, most hummingbirds make squeaking noises and are unable to form words, which is of course why they hum a lot.

Male bee hummingbird, in breeding plumage

(Male Bee Hummingbird in breeding plumage)

Because I like serializing my blogs, part 2 of The Amazing Lives of Hummingbirds will be posted this weekend.  I will take a look at Sword-billed Hummingbirds, Giant Hummingbirds and Sicklebills.  I will also share my experiences with Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and their behavior.  Be prepared for fighting and love quadrangles; which are much cooler with hummingbirds than humans.  Plenty of awesome pictures will be shown and you will learn how hummingbirds can fly backwards!  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to sip some nectar to replenish my energy.  After all, I’m exhausted from this strenuous writing workout.