Who among us doesn’t “start” with pleasure at the sound of the whiz past our ear in the garden?
Our bodies swivel and our eyes instantly gaze in the direction of the projectile’s departing figure. These mighty gems’ brilliance and antics bring life to our surroundings and joy to our lives.
Here on the West Coast of Washington state we have two species of hummingbird. The Anna’s hummingbird is a year-round resident. The name honors Anna de Belle Massena, wife of Prince Francois Victor Massena, a French nobleman greatly interested in natural history.
The hummingbird in the prince’s collection was named by another French naturalist, Rene P. Lesson. The type specimen was purchased in 1846 by the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia with the entirety of the prince’s collection.
The Anna’s is one of the earliest breeding birds in all North America. In some cases, eggs are laid before the first of the year when two species of gooseberry are in bloom (first Ribes malvaceum, and later R. speciosum). Scientists believe the Anna’s and gooseberries may have co-evolved. Breeding season is December through June.
The male Anna’s has a more complex song than all the other species in North America. He is four inches long. The female collects nectar in the morning to feed her young; this gives the young instant energy to keep them warm while she goes out in search of food.
Later she collects more and more insects as the day warms and they become more active, even though nectar is still available. Insects are the main food she brings back in the afternoon. Protein late in the day will help the young get through the cooler nights. The Anna’s range is expanding north and east to British Columbia, Alaska and Montana.
The rufous is our second coastal hummingbird and is the most northern. It is the only hummingbird regularly occurring in Alaska and has the longest migration of 3,000-plus miles. The rufous are also the most aggressive in defending their territory.
Rufous hummingbirds have also been seen defending sapsucker holes and sipping tree sap. Sap is similar in sugar concentration to nectar. Birds defending trees stay perched more than those defending flowers, which saves energy. Trees are important food sources during migration.
East of the Cascade Mountains you will still find the rufous and the occasional Anna’s which is expanding its range. Also present are the black-chinned and calliope hummingbirds. The black-chinned has the most extensive range of our western hummingbirds, from Texas to British Columbia. The male is 3-¾ inches long.
Like many other North American hummers, the female may build successive nests on top of each other. She does not tend to decorate her nest with lichen as many others do however, so her nests tend to be more beige.
The calliope is North America’s smallest hummer at three inches. It prefers to breed at higher elevations and avoids the coast. Its nests are often in trees adjacent to meadows and face east where they can be warmed by morning sun after a cold mountain night.
Their nests are deep for more warmth and often are protected by an overhang. The males can go into torpor on cold mountain nights, but the female must keep her body temperature up to incubate the eggs. After her last feeding at night she does not feed the young but uses it for her own energy to warm the young.
Male hummingbirds leave their territories one to two weeks earlier than females and immature hummingbirds. They also arrive at breeding grounds one to two weeks earlier than the females to establish territories.
Contrary to urban myth, migration will not be delayed by existing feeders. They respond to the change in light level, not food level. Leaving feeders out will help those hummingbirds migrating later and our wintering Anna’s here on the “west” side.
The structure of hummingbird feathers gives them their jewel-like qualities. It is not pigment, but nanostructures within the feather that reflect iridescence. These are the most specialized of all bird feathers.
The outer third of the gorget (throat) feathers have platelets filled with air bubbles. They partially reflect light and are flat, so they only reflect light in one direction; that is why they appear black or dusky when not being struck directly by the sun. The feathers of the back are concave and reflect light from any direction, so are always iridescent. They can fly forward, backward and briefly upside down.
More fascinating details include:
n They have the largest relative heart size of all birds, or about 2.4 percent of body weight. Wings can beat 78 times/second during regular flight and up to 200 times/second in a display dive. A male Allen’s (not found here) can fly 45 miles per hour in a dive.
n Their hearts beat 1,260 times/minute.
n Resting hummingbirds take 250 breaths/minute.
n Hummingbird eggs are about half the size of a jellybean (less than ½ inch).
n They consume half their weight in sugar each day. It’s a good thing they only weigh about three grams (1/10 the weight of a first-class letter). The average man would have to consume 285 pounds of hamburger as the equivalent.
n Their main diet is nectar and insects. We duplicate the nectar with our sugar solutions. Cane table sugar is sucrose, and nectar is sucrose, glucose and fructose. Beet sugar contains galactose and has been treated with bisulfite so has a sulfur residue which is not recommended. Red dye is not necessary as feeders have red on them anyway. (Unlike bees, hummingbirds are attracted to red.) They eat many insects and spiders for protein. They also use spider silk to hold their nests together and to decorate with lichens.
Habitat requirements include:
n Many levels: Different heights allow for choices of where to feed and where to rest or perch.
n Sun and shade: Allow for growth of a variety of plants.
n Water: Have water available for bathing, as they get almost all their liquid from nectar. They bathe by flying through sprinklers, flutter in wet foliage or dip in shallow puddles.
n Nesting: A wide variety of plants gives a choice for nesting materials. Shrub species of willow provide both downy fibers and flower nectar.
n Lots of flowers: Provide a sequence of bloom times, so there is nectar all season long. Flowers provide nectar and attract insects.
A short list of hummingbird-friendly flowers includes:
n Red flowering currant (Ribes speciosum).
n Coralbells (Heuchera).
n Hardy fuchsia (Fuchsia sp.).
n Scarlet gilia (Ipomopsis aggregata).
n Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis).
n Trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens).
n Bee balm (Monarda).
n Penstemon (Penstemon sp.).
n Scarlet sage (Salvia coccinea).