Phil Hardy — A bird’s eye view: get ready for hummingbirds!

Published 1:44 pm Saturday, July 28, 2018

Readers of my column already know of my affinity for hummingbirds. Not only are their tiny size and flight abilities incredible, their beautiful colors are stunning. For such a diminutive creature, they are remarkable survivalists.
I’ve often thought, given the aggressiveness of hummingbirds towards others of their kind, it’s a good thing they are small. What if they were the size of a dog or a cat? They could probably inflict some permanent damage if any larger.
On more than one occasion I have witnessed two hummingbirds get into a school-yard brawl and fall to the ground in a skirmish. With wings flapping and beaks biting, finally one bird subdued the other by pinning the opponent to the mat. Eventually the victor released the defeated bird after the altercation to go lick his wounds.
As we approach the summer months and more hummingbirds, I’d like to remind those of you that feed hummingbirds of some health tips. For the birds’ health, make your own nectar by dissolving 1 cup granulated sugar in 4 cups of water. Don’t purchase store-bought nectar with the red dye in it, and don’t add red food coloring. These dyes are detrimental to hummingbirds’ health.
Keep feeders spotless, and thoroughly clean them every few days. Our South Georgia heat and humidity can quickly spoil sugar water, causing it to ferment. Keep ants away from feeders by coating any feeder hangar wire with petroleum jelly or vegetable oil. Bee guards will help deter wasps and other stinging insects. Hummingbirds tend to avoid feeders occupied by wasps. Select hummingbird feeders that are easy to clean. Some feeders are much easier to clean than others. I use feeders manufactured by Best 1 almost exclusively.
From comments I’ve received from you, the reader, my columns on hummingbirds tend to be more popular than other topics. With this in mind let’s explore some hummingbird facts.
• All hummingbirds are in the family Trochilidae. Trochilidae is from the Greek trochilos meaning small bird.
• There are somewhere around 340 species of hummingbirds worldwide.
• All hummingbirds are found in the Western Hemisphere: North, Central and South America.
• Hummingbirds are found as far north as Alaska and as far south as southern Chile.
• Hummingbirds eat soft, small bugs, like gnats, for protein.
• A hummingbird’s brain is 4.2 percent of its body weight, the largest proportion in the bird kingdom.
• As a result of having a large brain, hummingbirds are very smart. They have the ability to remember every flower they have visited and how long it takes that particular flower to replenish its nectar. This saves the bird energy by not visiting flowers that aren’t productive for food.
• Although hummingbirds have little or no sense of smell, they have excellent eyesight and can even see ultraviolet.
• Hummingbirds have a grooved, bifurcated tongue shaped like a W and use it to lap nectar from flowers and feeders. They even have tiny hairs on the tip of their tongues to facilitate the lapping action.
• In flight, a hummingbird’s heart can beat up to 1,260 beats per minute. At rest, its heartbeat is around 250 beats per minute.
• Some hummingbirds can beat their wings up to 200 times per second when diving. In normal flight they beat their wings around 70 times per second.
• Ruby-throated Hummingbirds take about 20 hours to fly, non-stop, across the Gulf of Mexico during migration.
• Hummingbirds can place themselves into a hibernation-like state known as torpor at night. This event lowers the bird’s heart rate to around 50 beats per minute and lowers the body temperature from around 107 degrees F. to as low as 70 degrees F. By doing so the bird conserves energy.
• Hummingbirds can’t sing. They vocalize by chirping.
• Many male hummingbirds have iridescent feathers on their throat. This area is called the gorget, pronounced GOR (like VP Al Gore), JET. Gorget comes from a French word, gorge, meaning throat.
• Hummingbirds have an average life span of about five years while some can live for more than 10 years.

It’s a good idea to place your hummingbird feeders high enough that outdoor cats cannot predate the tiny birds. Better yet, and for the health of your cats, keep your cats indoors, where they belong.
Hummingbird numbers have increased during June and July. The female Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have hatched their first, and probably second clutch of two eggs. So, in addition to the parents visiting our sugar-water feeders, the young are attracted to them also. Enjoy watching these flying jewels as they scamper about our yards visiting flowers and feeders.

Phil Hardy, a bird watcher and bird photographer, lives in Americus.