It can feel a little unnerving when, while quietly weeding your garden, you notice hovering a few inches in front of your face a beady-eyed, four-gram bundle of energy staring you down over a very sharp beak. Feisty and pugnacious, these irrepressible little jewels measure just 8-12 cm in length, making them the smallest birds on Earth.
The hummingbird family has over 330 different species that live only in the Americas, with most living near the equator. Less than a dozen species live in North America, and even fewer are year-round residents. A hummingbird’s wings can beat 55 times per second, and they can hover, fly backwards, and fly upside down. When at rest or in very cold weather, they go into a state known as “torpor” where their heart rate and breathing slow down to one fifth of normal.
These birds sip nectar from flowers, red being their favourite colour, and thereby act as a pollinator to host plants. A hummingbird tongue can lick 10 to 15 times per second, and they digest the sugar found in floral nectar in 20 minutes with a 97% efficiency in converting it into energy. They also eat small insects and require 12 times their body weight each day in food.
Hummingbirds have a variety of calls, chips, and chatters, and each species has its own language to alert other birds or to challenge invaders of their feeding territories. They aggressively defend their food supplies against other birds and will attack crows and hawks that infringe on their territory. You may have noticed one dominant hummingbird that guards all “its” backyard feeders with gusto!.
On Mayne Island there are two species we see regularly – the tiny summer visitor, the Rufous, and the year-round resident, the Anna’s.
Anna’s have moved northward from the southwestern United States and Mexico over the last several decades and now live along the Pacific Coast from north of Vancouver to south of Baja, and as far east as Arizona. This hardy species is able to survive winters where more fragile species cannot, converting sugar to fat during the day and burning it off by night.
The Anna’s is one of BC’s earliest-breeding birds, starting to nest in mid-winter, and some females build second nests while young are still in the first, and often reuse nesting material from occupied nests. One female bird was observed making four consecutive overlapping nests in one season!
If you have been managing nicely feeding Anna’s over the winter months, it’s likely that all hell will break loose when those little orange bombshells, the Rufous, arrive mid-March through April. These miraculous birds have just completed a 5500 km migration from Mexico and southern Texas, but they waste no time fiercely claiming territory for feeding and nesting.
Rufous hummingbirds breed in southern Alaska, western Canada, and Washington and Oregon. The female builds her nest about 1.5″ in diameter from plant down, fibres, flower petals, spider webbing, and lichens. She lays 2 white unmarked eggs and incubates them for 15-17 days.
During spring on Mayne, you have probably witnessed some frightening fast-moving dives from both our hummingbird species. These impressive displays are made by feisty males trying to impress the females.
Anna’s males begin by hovering over a perched female and singing. The bird then ascends more than 30 metres into the air and dives sharply toward the ground, flapping, gliding, then flapping again. As he pulls up at the bottom of the dive with wings spread, the hummingbird rapidly opens and closes his tail, causing air to rush over his tail feathers, which unleashes a loud, distinctive squeak. Anna’s Hummingbirds always dive facing the sun in order to display their pink throats and facial feathers as they dive. A male Anna’s can dive 40 times in a row.
To attract a female’s attention, the Rufous male buzzes back and forth in a U shape in front of her while she is perched. If that fails to impress, he will take to sky-diving, his wings a blur of motion while his tail moves up and down. Both wing and tail feathers moving through the air at high speed make its distinctively raspy sound. Rufous hummingbirds have a notch in one of their tail feathers that allows the tip to flutter quickly and beat out a loud CHU CHU CHU at the end of each dive.
In spite of their enthusiastic mating displays, male hummingbirds do not stick around to help rear their young. They leave the female to build the nest, incubate the eggs, and raise and feed the young—a bit of a letdown after so much panache!
To feed or not to feed?
Feeding hummingbirds can be delightful as their aerial acrobatics and interactions with each other are very entertaining to watch. If you are feeding hummingbirds, however, here are some important reminders from the BC-SPCA. Nectar feeders provide a food source for hummingbirds in winter, but they must be cleaned regularly and kept fresh and full. Fungus or bacteria in one feeder will affect many birds and can cause their tongues to swell and result in death. Anna’s hummingbirds may come to rely on this food source and will suffer if it is interrupted. Use one part white sugar to four parts water; more concentrated syrup will not flow well over the birds’ grooved tongues. Avoid using commercial syrups which contain artificial colouring, and never use brown sugar, honey, molasses or other sweetener. Clean feeders with white vinegar and water once a week, and change the solution weekly. On very cold nights bring feeders indoors to prevent freezing.
For such tiny creatures, hummingbirds may seem strong and indomitable, but they face many obstacles including adverse weather conditions, predators such as cats, dogs and larger birds, habitat destruction, plus tragically, many migrating birds are killed each year flying into the glass windows of houses and highrises.