Hummingbirds are appearing everywhere across the continent now, but often times it's difficult to differentiate the young from the adults. Most adult birds will spend 90 percent of their time sipping sweet nectar from the never ending source of easy food, while the young are new to the world and focus on what they've been designed to do, pollinate. That's until they learn the grown up food, feeders. No hummingbird will ever give up the natural bounty provided to them throughout the fields of wildflowers, but feeders are a way we can attract them to our gardens and provide them with an unlimited source of food, especially during tough weather times.
This time of year young will be dancing from one garden to the next looking for color and food. I've always mentioned the extreme value of feeders to keep adult birds around our gardens, but flowers are vital this time of year. Young birds may learn feeders quickly or it may take several days or even weeks to learn from the adults or other youngsters brave enough to have already sipped the potion. But until they solve the feeder mystery, flowers, and lots of them, are vital to keeping young birds around your garden. You can have one great flower or a field of poppies, and a hummingbird will always choose the great one! It's crucial to load up on lots of their favorites. If you have enough great flowers to keep a hummingbird busy all day in your garden, it's extremely probable it'll be back repeatedly, or seldom leave your garden.
Here's a young hummingbird that nearly stands on its head to taste the nectar within the Zinnia flower. Adults will choose the easy way to feed, whether flowers or feeders, but the young will get themselves into a real bind if they see something that interests them.
Juvenile Ruby-throated Hummingbird Male. August 10th, 2017. N.E. of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
Another inch of rain and driving winds brought in the night. The sky lit up continuously and left me wondering if anything would be left standing the next morning. It's usually quite easy to fall asleep to a stormy serenade but with the upcoming young hummingbirds I worried that many plants wouldn't remain to entice these new arrivals.
Morning brought in another beautiful sunrise and beads of water glistened upon the Nasturtium leaves. Squeaking filled the yard and I couldn't believe I was missing some of the hummingbird action. I quickly set up my chair and pulled out my camera. No sooner did I sit down, and a young hummingbird greeted me with my first photo opportunity.
Ahhhhh, hummingbirds. Does it get any better? The air was filled with freshness and it was yet another beautiful morning.
July 28, 2017. N.E. of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Juvenile Ruby-throated hummingbird.
The Delphiniums stood tall and straight as arrows but within 7 days, 2 storms managed to flatten half of them in the garden. Wind and rain beat many of them to the ground while others hung saturated with water. The morning after the second rain I was really surprised to see that some Delphiniums had survived. The timing was perfect this year as Delphiniums were just about in full bloom just at the time the first young hummingbirds were to start appearing in our garden. Any day and we should see our first young. One female started to increase her frequency to our yard which is a good indication the young are much larger and requiring more food. A few males would show up and squabble about who gets which feeder, while Ziggy would fly up in each of their faces as if to say, "what ya doin'?" They are all pretty familiar with Ziggy. He has no fear and pretty much sets all the rules. Some squeaking was happening and would alert our attention, until finally we spotted a young Ruby-throat. Although many of the Delphiniums were flipped upside down, it made no difference to this young male. Right side up or on their heads, he didn't care. His attention was so focused on the Delphiniums that feeders weren't even on his radar. At one point he did approach a feeder with extreme caution. He flew up with tail feathers flared, but didn't have the courage to yet sample it. One benefit to him not knowing the feeders yet is that he gave me plenty of photo opportunities in the flowers.
This young male was not one of ours. He's one of those that I would consider a random sighting. He was raised in a region that didn't have many food choices, so he moved around. When he spotted our field of Delphiniums the choice was made easy for him. An endless supply of food encouraged him to stay right where he was. We spotted him on July 20th. He was very capable of a bit of push back with our current males, but not wise enough to know he had 10 nectar filled feeders available to him.
Juvenile Ruby-throated hummingbird. July 20, 2017. N.E. of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
His throat feathers draped down like a curtain of jewels, and with every slight movement of his head, radiant red sparkled in all directions. His body, no bigger than a peanut, covered in metalic olive feathers perfectly decorated this little bundle of life.
Even when you're sitting a few feet away from one of these little treasures, it's so difficult to understand how much greatness is stuffed into such a small feathered package. Radiant on the outside, and a memory and GPS on the inside, not to be outdone by the skills finely tweaked in every muscle that connects him. And finally to complete this tiny package, a big attitude that makes him so much bigger than he really is.
Male Ruby-throated hummingbird. N.E. of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. June 2017.
Over the last couple weeks questions have arose on the particular arcing motion that male hummingbirds do. I can't speak of all hummingbirds, but many including the Ruby-throat perform a pendulum arcing motion from 1 foot long to up to 30 feet long. This movement is just like a pendulum. With every downward swing the male will create a cricket sound as he swoops down overhead of a female to try and impress her, or over any other bird to intimidate it. Generally if the male remains focused for more than 30 seconds, it tends to be a female hummingbird grabbing his attention. Otherwise, he'll do this to scare the life out of any bird that sparks his short temper.
How often will he do this into the season? If it's for intimidation purpose, it'll last through until they migrate south. Even the juvenile males will adopt this tactic very quickly, as this behavior is stitched into their DNA. If it's for the breeding purpose, he will do this approximately 55 days before the last sighting in your region. This allows for the complete cycle of the female building a final nest and raising the young to fledge, and for the young to fatten up before they start their southern journey.
The adult males sole purpose is breeding and protecting his territory for arriving females in Springtime. Everything else is secondary, including bottles of sweet nectar scattered across the countryside. Those bottles of sweet nectar just encourage them to find territory near these sources of food. Their thought process is far simpler than we tend to think, but they are driven by the powerful urge to breed, which cannot be undone by any force other than its maker. Many people are aware of the tough role of the female in building the nest and raising the young by herself, but the energy consumed by the male over an entire season is exhausting when you consider the battles that ensue daily, some of which can be fatal. He will risk his life to keep control of his territory and breeding rights. This probably explains a lot when it comes to why these birds return to the same location every year. Their success in breeding is the most powerful tool to ensure their return to the same garden each year. Besides the fact that they entertain us throughout the summer, their purpose is very intentional. When life or death drives a bird to fulfill its purpose, nothing will stop the continuous cycle that we get to experience each and every year.
Ziggy, Adult Male Ruby-throat hummingbird, N.E. of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. June 2017.
This is the time of year when so many "hummingbirders" are concerned about the birds they saw earlier in Spring. They see few to no birds over lengthy times. Many pull down their feeders, and many have asked me if they should do so. There is a clear and definite answer to this. DO NOT pull down your feeders. In Spring when they first arrive, they're looking for food sources primarily for one reason. They want to know that there'll be food for them and their young throughout the entire nesting season, and when they'll bring the young from the nest. Sure, the sightings are much higher when they first arrive, but things change dramatically. If you have a dominant male, he will continue to stick around or show up frequently, depending on the size of his territory, but the females have a different role that doesn't allow them as much freedom. You may have a female nesting very near your garden, and you may have them nesting a mile or more away. This is the biggest variable that will dictate how frequently the females will show up. If she nests within a quarter mile of your place, she'll probably show up 2 or 3 times an hour to feed. If she nests half a mile a way, she may show up a few times a day. If she nest over a mile away, she may appear once a day to once every few days, or even once a week. With these few sightings, it's almost a guarantee you will not see every visit, especially if you look out at your feeders a few times a day with the slightest odds of seeing her 30 second visit.
Hummingbirds are very similar to other birds in the fact that they feed in close proximity to their nest. It would be counter productive to gather food 2 miles away, while consuming half to most of it in their travels to and from the nest. Hummingbird food(nectar) can be hard to find in large quantities, so when they know of a source, they'll remember it, and highly rely on it. That's why this is NO time to pull down feeders, thinking they're gone. They may only show up once a week, and guaranteed most people probably miss at least 90 percent of their visits, but they will still seek out and rely on these food sources up to and when the young leave the nest. If you decide to pull down your feeders, you will completely undo all the progress achieved first thing in Spring. I can promise you, if you've had a female hanging around in Spring for a day or more, the probability that she'll be back with her young later in the season is extremely high.
For those living in a region that has a second and even a third brood, this cycle simply repeats itself, but with a larger number of sightings in between because of the population increase.
Female Ruby-throated hummingbird, N.E. of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Late May 2017.
8 months in a bird's life and lots can change. I waited for Ziggy's return and it appeared like his legacy was over. A more docile male appeared and stuck to one side of the garden. His characteristics seemed quite different from his predecessor. As time went on, little bits of Ziggy's personality started to appear in the current male. He shifted his territory from one side of the yard to eventually controlling the entire garden. I started to see this crazy flight pattern appearing as he gave me more opportunities to see him in the entire yard. It was the same bird from early on in Spring, but after 8 months away and a change in tree and yard structures, these variables must have forced a few changes in his behavior. I couldn't believe it. "Ziggy, could it be you?"
The strangest perches were being used again, and not just one of them but all of them. It's like he slowly started remembering things from the past, and I started recognizing his little quirks as well. A number of males still kept showing up but with extreme caution, and they were often times met with a surprise blitz attack from stealth jet Ziggy.
I saw very few similarities to start with, but after the last week of watching his behavior, I am nearly one hundred percent convinced it's Ziggy. I wouldn't have believed it early on but there are far too many similarities to not believe that Ziggy lives on.
Adult Male Ruby-throat. N.E. of Edmonton, Alberta. June 2017
It was the day I expected to see at least one of my hummingbirds arrive. It was very early after a night time rain. Every drop of water sparkled in the morning sun and there was life everywhere. Many birds of all kinds were present, and several of each kind selected their perfect perch to sit and wait for a possible arriving mate. They all sang their own song, all so different, and none of them in unison. It was like unorchestrated chaos, but so beautiful. All of my favourite birds had shown up within 2 days, except one.
I found no better way to spend the day than sitting and listening to the peaceful garden, and waiting for our Rubies to return. Every small moving object in the yard would grab my attention and make my heart skip a beat. Then it happened. Over the trees and directly to the open feeder arrived a male Ruby. He spent about 30 seconds drinking, and then flew the the next feeder to get a taste. Then he flew to the third, fourth, and fifth feeder, giving them each a taste. He inspected the yard from corner to corner and flew to one of his favourite perches...2000 miles and I'm finally home. N.E. of Edmonton, May 2016. Adult Male Ruby-throated hummingbird.
These are not great captures, but I wasn't expecting any photo ops. I usually wait a few days until I can figure out patterns and locations where they like to sit, then I'll spend time getting some closeups. I pulled out the garden hose to fill up the fountain and wash my hands. I noticed the one male feeding at a feeder when he instantly bee lined right towards me. I could see that fluorescent ruby throated laser beam coming right at me. At this point I had water splashing up in my face and causing a real commotion. He flew within a foot of the water hose, looked at me and then flew back to the trees. About an hour later we noticed him at the fountain. He was there for only about 15 seconds, long enough for me to get the camera out, but NOT to get the picture. Within a couple minutes he flew back to the fountain and sat on the edge, laid in the water and fanned himself with mist. These photos were from a long distance away, so please forgive the quality, but he sure game me a memory.
This was our throw together fountain, and I placed a flat concrete piece on top so the water would just roll over it. It's course enough that they can grab hold with their little talons.
This male is now our dominant male. I have not seen Ziggy, and I'm beginning to think his legacy is finished, however, he is more than likely the one to be given credit for the massive population that we've developed over the last few years.
Many "hummingbirders" have been alternating their attention between the migration maps and staring at their hummingbird feeders. It's remarkable how one of the tiniest birds on the planet can have such a massive impact on our everyday lives. What's the intrigue that forces us to dedicate hours of our lives in hopes of spotting just one little hummingbird? Well, you might get a different answer from anyone who suffers from this addiction. For me, the list of intrigue is long. First of all I struggle with how such a small cluster of feathers is capable of so much, but it goes so far beyond just their physical capabilities. Just one glistening gorget feather reflects the most beautiful colors, and many placed in a pattern can display the most beautiful bird in existence.
We can see a million hummingbird sightings in our life, but the million and one is just as exciting. They are fascinating beyond belief, and for those who are still waiting for their first, I sincerely hope you don't give up trying. This is a hobby or project that requires persistence. Sometimes it takes longer than others to get your first sighting, but if you cater to hummingbirds with feeders, choice flowers and other hummingbird attractions, your rewards will be great. In time you can build up a population of hummingbirds that will make your garden complete.
I have to add one very important thing. Just because you haven't seen a hummingbird at your feeders doesn't mean they weren't there. It's impossible for any one of us to watch every feeder, every minute, of every daylight hour. These birds are like little ninjas. You can sneak a cup of coffee and return, and not have a clue one was there. Trust that they are around, and eventually the results will appear, especially after the young leave the nest.
May 2016, Adult Male Ruby-throated hummingbird.
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