Hummers Heading South for Winter

I love Autumn and I love hummingbirds. I do not love that the two do not coincide with each other. When autumn comes, I have to say goodbye for now to the hummingbirds who keep me actively outdoors in constant quest of being in their presence. The photo above was taken in the early evening as the sun set. This time of year with the shorter daylight hours, hummers feed for long periods of time in the evening to fill up on nectar and insects, giving them enough strength to make it through the night.

As October is almost here, the ruby-throated hummingbirds that have been gracing our gardens since late April, early May, have started their migratory journey back to Mexico for the winter.

The adult males started their journey back approximately two weeks ago with the adult females starting this week. The young hummers are the last to follow and they may be late in their journey. Keeping this in mind, keep your clean and ready feeders up until Halloween so the very last stragglers have some nourishment to help them make it to their destination.

Enough of the sadness already. The bright side to autumn is that I get a chance to reevaluate my hummingbird gardens and where my feeders are placed and start planning the changes I will make to my garden next year. If lucky enough, I will find the necessary perennials now to plant for next years bloom that I am missing from this years garden. (Tomorrow’s blog),

I look forward to April every year because I know the male hummers are the first to arrive and have been spotted in southern Wisconsin as early as mid April. My feeders need to be out by this time for the first arrivals to give them the necessary energy bites they require from such a long trek north. adult male on dreary day

Hummingbirds fascinate me, simply put. Not only are they the tiniest birds in the world, they are the only birds who can fly forward, backwards, sideways and even upside down. They are also the only birds that can hover and they only weigh as much as a penny, that’s it. Also, they are the only hummingbird found east of the Mississippi River in the United States

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hovering hummer, claws (Notice the claws on this hummer? They are only used for perching, preening and scratching intruders.)

Hummingbirds were given the name for the sound they make when they fly by or hover; humming. They flap their wings 70-80 times per second! Since I garden with hummers in mind, quite often I hear the familiar hum of their wings as they fly past in their quest for nectar from one of the numerous plants I have growing for them. Not only do the flowers supply them with nectar, they also supply the hummers much needed protein and amino acids in the form of tiny insects such as aphids, gnats, tiny spiders, etc.  honeysuckle hummer  Their bills actually open up far enough bill open hummer to snatch these little bugs but their tongues do the work for the nectar. The end of their tongues are grooved to lap up nectar. Flowers are their favorite source for nectar and protein but sometimes the flowers offerings are sparse and they rely on us humans to feed them their sugar water. (See bottom note about this)

hummer on deck  window peeking hummer

These tiny jewels of the sky get their coloration from special feathers that reflect green light to make them appear green but only when the sun is shining. When only low-light conditions are present, such as cloudy, dreary days or evening when the sun goes down, their feathers appear gray.

The reason for this is due to how their feathers are made up. Each feather is comprised of tiny barbules which each contain cells of air[space that act like prisms. Each one bbreakds up sunlight into components of light as in every color of the rainbow, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.

Stan Tekiela, author of the book, ‘Amazing Hummingbirds Unique Images and Characteristics’ further explains the why perfectly. “At the base of each cell is a layer that absorbs most wavelengths of light and reflects the remaining light back to our eyes.” The adult male ruby-throated hummingbirds gorget cells reflect the red, orange and yellow color creating the gorgeous ruby color but the green, blue, indigo and violet colors are absorbed. However, the hummer has to be facing the sun to see the brilliant ruby throat. In the first photo, the male is not facing the sun and the second photo, the day is overcast so both males gorgets just appear to be a very dark red but the emerald green glistens. adult male emerald back adult male head turned

Now the females also have the emerald backs, same as the males, they just do not have the red gorget. Young males though look just like the females as they do not get their throat plumage until their first winter. The only difference between the young males and young and adult females is that all females have white tips on the end of their tails. young male YOUNG MALE  FEMALE IN FLIGHT ADULT FEMALE  Look at her tail tips.

The importance of clean feathers is the difference between life and death for hummingbirds. They depend on staying a specific weight to be able to fly the way only hummingbirds can so they have to preen constantly. Preening involves shaking or ruffling their feathers out first then using their bills, gleaning (or combing) their feathers from base to tip. They remove dirt and debri this way which also repairs, smoothes and adjusts their feathers back in order.  preening hummer

(Look for my blog coming soon with videos of preening and other hummingbird activity.)

Besides the danger of having dirty feathers or not having enough food, hummingbirds have other dangers as well that we may not even consider.

If a pond or natural water source is present, hummers will cautiously dip themselves in the water to bathe or preen to clean their feathers. This poses a problem. While hummers have excellent sight and look for potential predators, they do not always see the bullfrog who is waiting at the edge of a pond. In one swift swipe of their tongue, bullfrogs can snatch an unsuspecting hummingbird and eat it in one gulp.

Hummingbirds watch for danger in the skies too in the form of aggressive hawks that like the challenge of nabbing a hummer in midair for a snack.

Believe it or not, two distinct insects are a definite concern for the hummingbirds safety. One of the hummingbirds favorite foods are baby spiders and hummers are known to steal spider silk from webs to make their nests with but if a hungry hummer is not paying attention to his feeding surroundings, he may get entangled in a spider web and not get out. The voracious owner of the web will bite the unlucky hummer, subduing it and eventually eating it. For this very reason, I tear down any webs I find in my hummingbird gardens.

The other deadly insect is the praying mantis. Praying mantis will hide beneath twigs where a hummer is feeding and when the hummer is close enough grab it and enjoys a meal.

Man made dangers are also a problem for hummers. Some of these are easy to fix and others, not so much. Red tape or ribbons on electrical fences is not ideal. Fences in general are sometimes a problem if the hummer flies into one and is winded. Pesticides and fertilizers sprayed on flowers, etc. will kill hummers if ingested. Red food dye for feeders can also kill them and should never be used.

However, regular wire fencing and tomato fencing are perfect for their tiny feet to perch on.

hummer on fence   tomato cage hummer

These are just some of the interesting facts I can share about hummingbirds and why I love them.
Tomorrow I will share how to attract hummers to your garden or yard and later in the week, I will share videos I took of some fun hummingbird antics.

All photos in this post were taken by me, Traci Bold. I own the copyright to all of them.

Besides my own observations, information given here is factual.

Information Credits given to : Stan Tekiela and Adventure Publications, Inc. ‘AMAZING HUMMINGBIRDS UNIQUE IMAGES AND CHARACTERISTICS’

http://www.hummingbirdsociety.org

http://www.hummingworlds.com

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