by Carl White, Master Gardener and bird Enthusiast
The hummingbird tongue extends and retracts some 20 times per second when drinking. The tongue separates so as to trap the sugar water and draws that up into its mouth. Scientists are still puzzled as to how the drawing of the water and swallowing are coordinated. So extends the mystery of the amazing little birds we so enjoy each summer. First, that the common habitant of the West Texas area is the Black-chinned species, which spends its winters in Central America and also on the Gulf coast. The greatest traveler is the Rufous, traveling some 4,000 miles from Mexico to Alaska. Being well adapted to cold, this migration begins as early as Feb. and by the time the Ruby-throats begin migration, the Rufous is already 1,000 miles farther north.
Second, like migrant nesting birds, hummingbirds have nest site fidelity. If the nesting was successful, and young were raised, they commonly return to the same area. Thusly, we see hummingbirds arriving in the Spring and hovering midair where the feeder served them the year before. In the Permian Basin area, placing your feeders outside by March 20 should catch the early male returnees.
It is interesting to find a hummingbird nest. If you do, do not disturb and get close to the nest. Having been found, and if you are close to the nest, the female will often abandon the nest and even young chicks. It takes less than a week for the female to build the nest, likely made from moss, lichen, and spider webs. The eggs, likely two, are the size of English Peas, and are the sole responsibility of the female. The male exists only for breeding; the rest is up to Mom. Being so territorial, the male furiously defends his territory and food supply, even from the females with whom he breeds.
Lastly, these birds fly at speeds up to 60 mph when doing their breeding display dives. Normal flying speeds are up to 30 mph. A common misconception is that they will hitch a ride on the back of larger birds, but untrue. They are solitary birds and migrate alone.
CAN THEY SING?
The hummingbird gets its name from the humming sound of its wings as it flies. Listening to the variations of sounds and vocalizations is a view into the hummingbird’s world. They are known to make chirping sounds. To hear them, you question are they fighting, protesting another bird’s intrusion, or deciding on who is to mate with whom?
It is known that the chirps of the birds are associated with their age, species and gender. The voice box of the hummingbird, the scrinz, is so small that it is incapable of complex variations. Only the Annas species, a West Coast variety, seems to have a repertoire which is a series of buzzes, with a whistle combined to make the appearance of a song.
Our common Black-chinned species has a flat toned wing whirr that is unmistakable. The Annas male makes a very loud popping nose with its tail feathers when in a courting display. Some species are known for wing sounds varying from shrill to high-pitched.
Attracting these birds to your yard is a combination of factors. You must provide a feeder. They will come to vegetation that provides food and protection. Clear, freshly prepared nectar is made from sugar in a 1 part sugar to 4 parts water, and if to be stored, to be slightly boiled. When cooled, the sugar water can be store in the refrigerator for a short time. In hot weather, the outdoor feeders should be changed every 3-4 days to prevent spoilage. In West Texas, flowers to provide nectar include: Red Salvias, Anisacanthus, butterfly bush (Buddleia), Althea(Rose of Sharon), honeysuckle, Trumpet creeper and petunias to name a few. These plants are more suited for the West Texas climate.
It is fun to attempt to understand how hummingbird sounds communicate in their natural world. If you place your feeders in the close proximity of your patio, listen and enjoy the wonderful world of the world’s smallest birds.