High Speed Beauty: Hummingbirds
Besides enjoying the color, fragrance, and texture of a year round tropical flower garden, another benefit is watching the wildlife it attracts. One of my favorites is the tiny hummingbird. Some years I see multiple species, but for the last few months I’ve only had the Cinnamon hummingbird visiting. One reason for this is that all hummingbirds are quite pugnacious and territorial-clearly the diminutive Cinnamon has claimed my garden and driven off other species.
Tiny, aggressive, and jewel-like, hummingbirds are pretty easy to attract to a garden and fun to watch. Hummingbirds are for the most part antisocial. In fact, these feisty little birds participate in high-speed chases when other hummingbirds are around to defend their feeding grounds. Hummingbirds do not need the help of other hummingbirds, either to locate food or fend off predators. Other hummingbirds are competitors for the flower nectar upon which they thrive. Even the potential help that a male might provide a female does not outweigh the burden of having a male around competing for food. The male and female hummingbirds do not form a pair-bond after mating and the female is left to care for eggs and chicks alone.
What is all this fighting about? These smallest birds in the world consume half their body weight in sugar each day. Hummingbirds are very small birds with a high metabolism. Since a great deal of energy is spent flying, they must feed almost constantly. Plants take time to secrete nectar into their flowers. In an ideal world, hummingbirds should time their visits to flowers to take advantage of a full load of nectar. But if they wait to feed at a flower, they risk having other hummers beat them to the meal. It is therefore worth the effort for hummingbirds to chase away competitors so they have access and control of their favorite flowers.
In many cases, hummingbirds defend small territories around a favorite flower patch, and do so even during brief stop-overs for refueling even during migration. Where many species live together, the large species attempt to dominate flowers and get the biggest drinks of nectar and smaller species try to sneak in for a few sips.
About the closest hummingbirds come to being social occurs in the tropics. The males of a small number of species form leks, places where they gather for months at a time and sing their scratchy hummingbird songs in an effort to attract females. The females are attracted to these groups of males and the males can then compete for the opportunity to mate.
Hummingbirds are promiscuous breeders: they do not form pairs so there is a lot of courtship behavior. This is very entertaining to watch! According to the World of Hummingbird researchers, females don’t like to build nests in a male’s feeding territory, and a home feeder is probably part of one. Visits to distant feeders take too much time away from the eggs. When the chicks hatch, they need protein to grow, not sugar, so their mother spends most of her time catching small insects and spiders for them.
These amazing birds are able to fly up, down, forward, backward and sideways, besides stop in midair- they were the inspiration for modern helicopters. They can beat their wings 60 to 200 times per second-so fast that the human eye cannot detect it- and reach a flying speed of up to 60 mph! Unlike most birds, the hummingbird’s wing is joined to its body only from the shoulder joint, allowing it supple movement and an180 degree axial rotation.
Hummers usually feed on nectar and insects. Hummingbirds actually lap up the nectar with their tongues. A lot of people think that hummingbirds have a hollow tongue like a straw. Not so, but their tongues do have grooves on the sides that collect nectar. When the bill constricts, the hummingbird can swallow the nectar from flowers and feeders.
Flowers that Attract Hummingbirds:
Flowers that attract hummingbirds have specific characteristics: the flower needs to provide a large amount of nectar with a substantial sugar content to support the demanding hummingbird life style. Sugar content will average about 26%, which is double what you get in a soft drink. But the nectar can’t be too concentrated and sticky because hummingbirds rely on a long tube-like tongue to draw nectar into their mouth through wicking action (the force that brings water up a straw when you stick the straw in a glass). Hummers love a flower that has red, yellow, or orange petals or bracts, which provide a long-distance sign to a fast-flying hummingbird that it should take notice. The petal shape is often long and tubular to suit the long narrow bill of the hummingbird that enables it to extract the nectar. Lastly, the blossom will often hang down and point downward so that a hovering hummingbird has the easiest access. The following pictures illustrate the plants in my Riviera Nayarit garden that hummingbirds love. Include a couple in your yard and there is no need for a hummingbird feeder.
Brazilian flame vine