May 19, 2020
If You Fill It, They Will Come
As one drives through the suburbs this time of year, it is hard to not notice the red topped and bottomed glass or plastic bottles hanging from eaves and hooks.
With apologies to the movie ‘Field of Dreams,’ those of us who hang these bottles know, “If you fill it, they will come.”
Beginning in the middle of March, one sure sign that spring is here is the arrival of hummingbirds.
These tiny birds – the smallest of any bird species – are born entertainers. When they find a food source they will defend it with vigor, putting on a show of swoops and dives, as they zoom to and from the feeder. If one sits quietly nearby, the birds may hover and look at you, or will be observed pausing mid-air before flying off in a burst of speed.
They are truly amazing creatures. There are 338 known species, the majority of which are found in South America. In fact there are as many as 140 different species which co-exist with each other in the Andes range. It is likely the species originated on that continent and have spread from there to North America.
Only a few hummingbird types are usually found in Washington State: Anna’s, Rufous, Black-Chinned, and Calliope. A couple other species have been spotted, but their visits are considered accidental.
There are a number of things which make the birds unique. One is the enlarged brain region responsible for vision. From the Infallible Wikipedia:
“The enlargement of this region responsible for visual processing indicates an enhanced ability for perception and processing of fast-moving visual stimuli which hummingbirds encounter during rapid forward flight, insect foraging, competitive interactions, and high-speed courtship.”
Additionally, hummingbirds have developed in such a way that they can adapt – in flight – to environmental factors such as wind. Wikipedia continues:
“While hovering, the visual system of a hummingbird is able to separate apparent motion caused by the movement of the hummingbird itself from motions caused by external sources, such as an approaching predator. In natural settings full of highly complex background motion, hummingbirds are able to precisely hover in place by rapid coordination of vision with body position.”
The article does go way down into the weeds with technical terms and scientific explanation; worth the longer read to learn more about these tiny acrobats. One of the most interesting aspects of hummingbirds, I think, is their ability to slow their metabolism enough to go into a state of hibernation.
“The metabolism of hummingbirds can slow at night or at any time when food is not readily available: the birds enter a hibernatory, deep-sleep state (known as torpor) to prevent energy reserves from falling to a critical level. During nighttime torpor, body temperature falls from 40 to 18 °C, with heart and breathing rates both slowed dramatically (heart rate to roughly 50 to 180 beats per minute from its daytime rate of higher than 1000).
During torpor, to prevent dehydration, the GFR ceases, preserving needed compounds such as glucose, water, and nutrients. Further, body mass declines throughout nocturnal torpor at a rate of 0.04 g per hour, amounting to about 10% of weight loss each night. The circulating hormone, corticosterone, is one signal that arouses a hummingbird from torpor.
Use and duration of torpor vary among hummingbird species and are affected by whether a dominant bird defends territory, with nonterritorial subordinate birds having longer periods of torpor.”
Just outside my window there are at least four or five of my favorite birds providing me with inspiration. Occasionally one will zip past my open window, a barely recognizable streak. On beyond – in the tree next to our house I watch as they perch at the top of slender branches. The Anna’s hummingbirds are also known for their vocal chirps, some of which sound like the warning beep of a smoke detector whose battery has worn out.
I first started feeding them in the 1980’s, putting up the feeders in early spring and retiring them in late August. For years I had understood the birds to be seasonal visitors. Then – some ten years ago – I noticed they were still outside my window in the fall. So I kept refilling their food source. And the birds stayed all winter.
In my reading I learned that only the Anna’s variety will remain year round in the mostly temperate climate of Western Washington.
When we moved to Mount Vernon two years ago, of course I put out the feeder in hopes of attracting a few birds. It worked. This year – without the need to be in Yakima half the time – I upped the stakes. For Mother’s Day my son gave me two additional feeders of a design which I had recently purchased and found it encouraged more birds to participate. With three active feeders, I am now cooking nectar about once a day!
I do believe we have three of the four species here: Anna’s, Rufous, and Black-Chinned. It’s possible the other is here also, but further observation is required.
Occasionally I will have a hummingbird hover just outside the window of my second story office. This occurred once last week and its message was clear: our feeder is empty. When I arrived downstairs and checked, the bird was correct. It was time to carry out my part of the bargain… fill it and they will stay.
Update: May 19, 2022 Due to some commitments this year, I opted to not put out my feeders in the winter. Yet, in mid-March the hummers arrived right on schedule and are just as voracious as always, draining a feeder a day. Today is the exception as I’m having to clean and replace nectar in TWO of the feeders!
I shot this video clip last night. Walked out on our front step and this bird flew right at me, intent on warning me off! The video is a little choppy because it was within inches of my face, coming at me with its beak… the sound you hear is it ‘popping’ it’s tail feathers to make that clicking noise.
A few links: