Posts Tagged ‘Hummingbirds’

Hummingbirds and War

August 9, 2011

Rufous Hummingbird -Photo by Tom Spross. Used with Permission(we hope).

Throughout human history animals have been unwittingly – and probably unwillingly – used as weapons of war. Hannibal crossed the Alps on elephants to attack the Roman Empire; pigs were used to frighten the elephants; mules were used as recently as WWII as military transport; camels are still used in desert regions to this day; since at least the time of the ancient Greeks, dogs have been used to kill opponents, sniff out hidden threats, blow up tanks, and carry messages; monkeys have blown themselves up in the service of mankind’s wars; and, of course, horses have carried people into combat since the invention of stirrups. Nor have sea-dwelling animals escaped warfare duties. Dolphins and sea lions are used as sentries and mine-detectors and the U.S. Navy and probably others research dolphins and whales to improve submarine propulsion and sonar.

Flying animals have not escaped either. In the Spanish Civil War pilots used turkeys to fly fragile supplies to gentle landings; bats have carried small incendiary bombs; and pigeons have carried military messages for centuries.

Hummingbirds had, until now, escaped military service.

But in what is a major feat of engineering, a hummingbird robotic spy-drone exists. It’s a fake hummingbird with a video camera in its throat. Apparently it can stay aloft for as long as ten minutes, allowing it to fly to a target and send video back to troops. It flies, hovers, and lands pretty much like the real thing.

And, based on the YouTube segments, the thing even resembles real hummingbirds.

(Better video is here but you have to sit through a commercial first.)

So, we have a question. The Pentagon has spent $4,000,000 dollars on this bird but the United States is not currently at war with any Western Hemisphere nation which is the only place hummingbirds live. Don’t you suppose a Taliban terrorist in Afghanistan might be suspicious when a bird he’s never seen shows up in his back yard and stares at him?

Perhaps the Pentagon relies on terrorists not being birders?

Aztecs would see this development as perfectly natural: They believed that hummingbirds were the souls of departed Aztec warriors. But we suggest you flee if you ever see a hummingbird drone in your backyard.

Hummingbird Watch

April 12, 2011

We’re on Hummingbird watch here today. A friend who lives not far from us had his first one yesterday.

Have you any idea how much time can be wasted, how much work procrastinated, while staring at a Hummingbird feeder?

A lot.


Attila the Hum

July 23, 2010

Rufous Hummingbirds have returned to our backyard and the Black-chinned Hummingbirds are not altogether happy about it. To say that a Rufous vigilantly protects whatever feeder or feeders it chooses to protect is an understatement, like calling Attila the Hun, “irritable.”

The backyard is livelier now.

Leave Your Hummingbird Feeders Up!

September 8, 2009

hummingbird-8The question arises in the United States and Canada each year about this time: Should we take down our hummingbird feeders so the hummingbirds won’t stay too long and get caught in the cold weather?

The answer is: Leave your feeders up!

The urge to migrate far, far outweighs a bottle full of sugar water. Your hummingbirds will leave when their biological clocks command them to leave, no matter how much food is still available for them. It is likely, in fact, that the hummingbirds at your feeders today are not the same ones that were there two weeks ago. Hummingbird migration has already started and the birds you see today are likely migrants passing through rather than the ones who spent the summer with you.

And, of course, their food supply is dwindling now. Colder nights and cooler, shorter days mean fewer bugs, their primary source of protein, and less nectar from flowers which they also eat in abundance even if human supplied sugar water is available.

But your sugar water is especially helpful to them as they migrate southward. They need immense amounts of energy to migrate successfully and they need to add to their body weight substantially. If you leave your feeders up until the last one has flown through, you will help them maintain that weight for as long as possible and help provide a needed energy boost for the next leg of the journey.

Hummingbird-4For those of our readers who live in the Gulf Coast region of the southern United States, you should leave your feeders out all winter: You may be treated to Ruby-throated Hummingbirds some of whom no longer migrate any further south than your region. Warmer winters and hummingbird feeders have lured some of that species to stay for the winter in your temperate region.

But for the rest of us, it is not yet time to take down our feeders. There are migrating hummingbirds who will thank you to leave them up, with fresh syrup, for a few weeks more.

Territorial Tourist

August 19, 2009

The Rufous Hummingbird guarding one your hummingbird feeders today may not be the same Rufous you see tomorrow.  They are heading south now and most don’t stay in one place long, but they take over the territory in all their layovers.  This guy protected a Schrodt feeder for four or five days, but has now departed.  We expect a replacement guard any day.


Spatuletail Hummingbird

August 22, 2008
© Roger Ahlman

© Roger Ahlman

One of the rarest of hummingbirds, the Spatuletail lives in Peru, only on the east bank of the Rio Utcubamba, much of which is accessible by car. Wildlife photographer Greg Homel got high definition video of a male Spatuletail in a courting display. Spend a minute watching it. By the way, those are not leaves stuck on his tail; that is his tail.

Then, if you have just a little more time spend a few more minutes at the Peru Birding Routes web site. In turn, that will make you want to spend a few weeks in Peru in order to see the birds which live there.

And, according to the American Bird Conservancy, you can also travel to an accessible hummingbird feeder which is currently frequented by some Spatuletail Hummingbirds. But you shouldn’t wait, the bird is endangered as humans continue to cut down the small area of forest which is its only home.


We found the photo of the Spatuletail on the home page of Andean Birding another web site that will make you want to leave for Peru as soon as you pack your gear.

Counting Hummingbirds

May 24, 2008

Since hummingbirds are returning to their summer ranges in North America we thought it a good thing to remind you how to count how many you may have at your feeders. We’ve done two posts on that the subject but if you are pressed for time, the second one summarizes all the methods we’ve discovered so that is the one to read first. Here is the link for the first post.

We also just did our first YouTube experiment which explains how to make syrup for them. More videos will follow about which feeders are best and how to care for them.

And, if you are interested in a little science about hummingbirds, here is a post about that. We’ll be doing more on hummingbird science as the summer continues.

Hummingbird Science, Part I

January 21, 2008

Last time we shared the counting methods of a true hummingbird expert, Sheri Williamson. Ms. Williamson is the author of the Peterson A Field Guide to Hummingbirds of North America which, at the risk of her accusing us of “absolutely gushing” — something we leave to artesian wells — is a fine book; full of useful information. Ms. Williamson has forgotten more about hummingbirds than we will ever know. She has blogs and a website which you can find here, here and here.

Still, we thought her post a bit haughty; written with a certainty and hubris scientists are well advised to avoid. In addition to calling Dan True’s book on hummingbirds “full of half-baked ideas, misinterpretations of other people’s work, and out-of-date information. . . .” she accuses us of misleading you into thinking that Ruby-throated Hummingbirds migrate over the Gulf of Mexico rather than taking the longer shoreline route. More about that in a minute.

First though, a word about science. Science is the best, most successful method of describing and explaining reality yet invented. But it is slow. It has to be. Hypotheses must be developed, data painstakingly accumulated, tested and peer reviewed. Even after a theory explaining all the known data is erected, wise scientists know the entire edifice can come crumbling down on their heads if a new pertinent, reliable piece of data is discovered which contradicts all that earlier work. We have a scientist friend who is delighted if he is right half the time.

More important, ignorance engulfs us. We must stand stupefied before all we do not know. Why was there a “Big Bang?” What does it mean to say that a black hole is a singularity? How do electrons act at a distance? How many dimensions exist? Are Boltzman Brains really possible? What is consciousness? Why is so much of the world explainable by mathematics? What cures the common cold? How can we stop cancer cells before they kill their hosts? How did Aspen trees learn to clone themselves? Why do some thunderstorms become super cells? How do birds navigate? What routes do Ruby-throated Hummingbirds follow on their migrations? How many are eating at your feeder?

Here is a scientist on the point:

As a human being, one has been endowed with just enough intelligence to be able to see how clearly, how utterly inadequate that intelligence is when confronted with what exists.
Albert Einstein.


But to get back to Ms. Williamson’s complaint about our post. Here is what she said:

One additional nitpick about the TFFBBB entry: It assumes that Ruby-throated Hummingbirds migrate south across the Gulf of Mexico when the evidence strongly suggests that the majority take an overland route around the Gulf in fall migration.

First, we did assume that large numbers of Ruby-throats migrate south across the Gulf of Mexico. And, while we are not — and never claimed to be — scientists, we don’t just make stuff up. Our statement that Ruby-throats fly directly over the Gulf of Mexico in autumn had two scientific sources.

The first, which we utilize frequently, is Cornell University’s Birds of North America. (BNA) (Available online, subscription required) According to one ornithologist: (Sheri Williamson, actually)

The most valuable published resource on the biology and natural history of North America’s hummingbirds is the Birds of North America series. . . .

Here is what BNA has to say about Ruby-throat migration:

Despite their tiny size, many of these birds fly nonstop across the Gulf of Mexico during fall and spring migration, a round-trip of more than 1,600 km. To accomplish this, individuals often double their body mass by fattening on nectar and insects prior to departure. (Emphasis added)

There is one problem with BNA. It is not updated frequently. For instance, the article on Ruby-throated Hummingbirds was written in 1996. So we checked one other, newer source: The 2001 Peterson A Field Guide to Hummingbirds of North America by Sheri Williamson. (That name sounds familiar, where have we heard it before?) In that book, at page 188, we read:

To reach their eastern nesting grounds each spring, many individuals take a direct but hazardous route across the Gulf of Mexico, flying non-stop over [sic] more than 500 miles of open water.

But, you say, that is the northbound trip. Could the southbound trip be different? Possibly. And, Ms. Williamson may have newer data and we hope she will share it with our readers and hers.

But the range map on page 192 of Ms. Williamson’s book flatly states:

Both trans-Gulf and overland migration routes used in spring and fall. (Emphasis added)

To be fair, both BNA and Ms. Williamson hedge their bets. BNA says:

Many fly across Gulf of Mexico, but many also follow coastal route. Routes may differ for north- and southbound birds. . .In general, however, migratory routes of this species remain poorly documented, and some proportion of the population may follow a coastal route south during the fall.

Ms. Williamson, on page 29 of her book, states:

Ruby-throated hummingbirds wintering in Central America take the most direct route available in spring migration, up the Yucatan Peninsula and across the Gulf of Mexico. This route would be dangerous in reverse, with a significant chance of missing the peninsula which may be one reason many thousands of southbound Ruby-throats follow the Gulf Coast through Louisiana and Texas.

To us, that smacks of anthropomorphism. The Yucatan Peninsula is a pretty big place and just because a flying human might miss it, doesn’t mean that Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, whose ancestors have been finding it for hundreds of thousands of years, will. Besides, even if they somehow missed it, the odds are good that they would make land-fall in Central America or in South America; another, even bigger place. Only an east-bound bird, leaving from Florida, could miss land. That would only be possible if the prevailing winds were blowing east, but we know the Trade Winds over the Atlantic blow toward the Gulf so would not be likely to blow birds out to sea.


But that isn’t science. To know for sure we need a professional meteorologist to tell us about the prevailing wind and weather patterns of the Gulf of Mexico. Then we might know if there was any autumnal danger for Ruby-throated Hummingbirds “missing” the Yucatan Peninsula.

We could ask Dan True.

Counting Hummingbirds, Part II

January 18, 2008

It is the dead of winter in the Northern Hemisphere, the Hummingbirds have gone south, and we’re writing — again — about how to count them. For northerners, it’s for future reference. The planet is tilting, spring will return, and so will the hummingbirds.


Last August we published a method of estimating the number of Hummingbirds you feed based on the amount of nectar disappearing from your feeders. You can read that post here. The method we suggested came from a book about hummingbirds by Dan True who, in turn, based his methodology on a 1973 scientific study.

With appropriate humility, given that we are not professional ornithologists or even biologists, we noted that if the 1973 study was wrong, the methodology might be as well. We invited readers to weigh in on the subject.

Last week someone did. A professional. One who has written a book about hummingbirds. A professional who assures us the 1973 study was wrong and that Dan True’s book is, “full of half-baked ideas, misinterpretations of other people’s work, and out-of-date information such as the sugar-consumption figure on which the TFFBB bloggers based their feeder-usage formula.”


With our out-dated, clumsy method; using wrong data ,we told you that 8 ounces of sugar solution was probably feeding about 25 hummingbirds each weighing 5 ounces. Our correspondent, using modern scientific data, says 8 ounces of sugar water feeds about 32 hummingbirds each weighing 3.5 ounces. In other words, our half-baked method came up with almost precisely the same answer as modern fully-baked science. Still, it is better to be right for the right reason than right for the wrong reason.

Reduced to essentials, our reader’s method consists of assuming that each bird eats about 1/4th of an ounce of solution a day. (Her entire explanation is here.) An ounce feeds four birds, 8 ounces feeds 32 birds. You must, of course, adjust for the amount of time it takes to drain the feeder. If it takes one-half a day to empty, then you have 64 birds. If it takes two days to empty, you have 16. (If it takes longer than two days for the birds to empty the feeder, you need to put fresh solution in it. Just sugar and water. No food coloring.)

This is, as she says, only a “crude” estimate since it assumes uniformly sized 3.5 oz. birds, does not include other food sources, stress, mating, and migration needs. (The need to fatten for migration was the reason we used an average weight of 5 ounces per bird in our August calculation.)

She also refers to another method of counting. Count the number of hummingbirds at your feeder at a given moment in time and multiply by six. She doesn’t endorse that method and neither do we since we’ve never tried it. It has the attraction of simplicity but lacks scientific rigor, a matter to which we return in the next post.

For you see, modern fully-baked science can’t tell for sure how many hummingbirds you are feeding. All it can do is make a “crude” estimate. It can’t even tell us with any certainty how Ruby-throated Hummingbirds (“Colibri Garganta de Rubi”, down there.) make their way to and from Central America. We’ll have more to say about that next time.


That is an angelic Black-chinned Hummingbird in the photo at our Schrodt feeder last summer.

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