A bird’s eye view: babysitting hummingbirds

Published 2:51 pm Thursday, September 12, 2019

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Recently friends from Plains allowed me to babysit their hummingbirds while away for several days. I know what you’re thinking. Why not just fill up the feeder and hang it where the birds can find it? But there’s much more to the story.

For years Lonnie and Annette Wise of Plains, Georgia, have hosted Ruby-throated Hummingbirds on their beautiful country estate. For whatever reason, known only to the hummingbirds, they seem to concentrate in their yard around the several sugar-water feeders that are hung to supplement their natural diet.

How many hummingbirds are we talking about? That’s hard to say. As I sat in a chair on their patio enjoying the aerial maneuvers of these tiny birds, I could easily see an estimated 30 birds. But while many were feeding, others had sought refuge in the nearby trees to rest. After all, when they aren’t in flight, they use far less energy.

Some hummingbird experts have estimated that for every hummingbird we see, there are seven that are unseen. So, do the math for the large numbers of hummingbirds Lonnie and Annette host. With so many hummingbirds feeding almost constantly from the seven sugar-water feeders, it’s no wonder they have to be refilled every other day. Lonnie tells me that he uses a gallon of sugar-water solution a day!

So, what is it that’s so entertaining about watching hummingbirds? Well, to begin with, hummingbirds are the smallest of all birds. They range from as small as the 2-inch Bee Hummingbird to 9 inches in the case of the Giant Hummingbird. Among the avian realm, they have a unique skeletal and muscular arrangement that makes their flight different from other birds. Hummingbirds generate lift on both the downstroke as well as the upstroke of their wings. Most other birds can generate lift only on the downstroke of their wing. Add to this fact that hummingbirds can rotate the humerus bones in their shoulders and thus change the pitch of their wings, giving them the unique ability to hover and even fly upside down and backwards.

Because their metabolic rate is astronomically high when compared to humans, they must consume food often. Smaller hummingbirds, like our local Ruby-throated, beat their wings up to 80 times per second. In contrast, the Giant Hummingbird may beat its wings only 15 times per second. And with a heart rate that can approach 1,260 beats per minute, it’s no wonder they must feed about every 10 minutes. Their food intake must equal one-half of their weight per day to survive.

Most humans with a pulse will agree that observing hummingbirds is not only fun but it can also be mesmerizing as well as therapeutic. Researchers now say that bird watching lowers stress and hypertension. Other benefits include getting outside and mild exercise which we all need more of.

As I sat on the Wises’ patio, I relaxed into the chair and remained motionless watching the hurried to and fro of the birds. At times, every port on the feeder would have an occupant as the hummingbirds tolerated each other’s presence for a few seconds. The entertainment provided me by the birds was better than a comedic marathon. I could literally feel my body and mind unwind. The best part was that this show was free.

Not being colonial at all, hummingbirds are solitary creatures. They don’t really make very good neighbors with each other. And the reason is simple. Hummingbirds have such a high metabolism they try to protect their food sources from their fellow competitors. No matter if it’s a patch of nectar-rich flowers or your sugar-water feeder hung outside a kitchen window, food means life to these tiny, hyperactive sprites of the avian world. There are no manners in nature; it’s every bird for himself.

If you feed hummingbirds, remember you can and should prepare your own sugar-water solution. Simply add 4 cups of water to 1 cup of granulated sugar and dissolve. Don’t forget to thoroughly wash your feeders and clean any and all mildew from the reservoir and the ports. Hot weather causes sugar water to ferment quickly so change it often for the health of the bird. There is no need to add red food coloring to the sugar water. Most feeders are red in color anyway. Besides, the red food coloring is not healthy for hummingbirds.

Enjoy our local hummingbirds while they last. Fall migration will begin in September and by the end of October most, if not all of our Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, will be at their winter homes in Central America biding the time before another northern migration begins and another breeding season is upon us.

Enjoy our wild birds and please keep your cats indoors, where they belong.


Phil Hardy is an avid bird watcher and bird photographer. He lives in Americus.