For two months Ziggy has had the run of the garden. Every feeder and flower has been available at any given time, but the vacation is just about over. Each day other hummingbirds will become aware of the garden only heard of, where the flowers are endless and the nectar never runs out. It's a garden that hummingbirds dream of, but are limited by the heightened security. With its offerings so abundant, the temptation is too much to overcome. Hummingbirds from all over the region will soon make their way to Ziggy's garden and overwhelm him with their excitement. The numbers of intruders will soon plan an unorganized attack as they arrive from all directions. Males, females and the annoying young will get on his very last nerve. He will no longer be able to defend all corners of his garden, but will retreat to his favorite feeder and closely guard it.
This is the continental event soon to take over many gardens worthy of the hummingbirds. The dominant male will soon realize there is too much to defend. He will realize that he is expending far too much energy in chase, and will need to conserve the energy for the migration soon to follow.
With little time left to relax, Ziggy, our Male Ruby-throat hummingbird, is taking advantage of the remaining time before the young, other males, and females start to arrive in the garden. Ziggy is soaking up a little "Me Time", as if he doesn't have enough of that already, just before the wave of hummingbirds begins. As vain little Ziggy stares into the water and sees his reflection, he asks himself, "who's the greatest of them all...well, that would be me of course"!
N.E. of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. July 13, 2019. Adult Male Ruby-throat hummingbird
I looked atop every one of his highest perches and he was nowhere to be found. It's usually not difficult to find him sitting on one of the highest branches or even the power pole. I repeatedly turned my head from left to right scanning across the yard for Ziggy. 10 minutes had passed and no sight of him. I checked the bird fountain, perches, and all the feeders, and nothing! As I looked at the feeder to my right, something very tiny caught my eye. There he was 10 feet to my right sitting on a stake we had in the lawn. It seemed a bit humorous as I was scanning left to right across the garden, so was Ziggy. His tiny little head was twitching left to right, also watching over his garden.
You seriously start to get attached to these tiny little creatures that look so insignificant in size, but so large in personality and character.
As my wife and I were getting into the car and leaving the yard a week ago, Ziggy had to roast by and perch on a dead stick right in front of the car. He seems to have drawn an attachment to us, just like we have to him. We spend hours walking through the garden, weeding and doing much other yard work, and there he sits right above us with little fear and more curiosity. He watches me clean the feeders, and replace with new ones, and always seems to keep a close eye on us.
It makes me curious to the depth of his understanding. I try not to personalize their behavior because I know it falls well short of ours, but there is a learning capability within that tiny little brain, and every time I see him do something in relation to one of us it makes me wonder just how much does he really know?
I've frequently talked about the predictability built into the DNA of hummingbirds, which allows us to learn and understand their behavior far more than if they just acted erratic and inconsistent all the time, but there's that special ingredient that's been added to the mix that makes them exciting every time we see them. That's the unpredictability factor. A few variables that we'll never know about have been tossed into the pot, stirred up and added to what we normally think should be.
We sat in the yard under a large Maple tree. Ziggy chose to sit 10 feet above us the whole time, with the odd feed mixed in, of course, but then right back to his perch. Some think it's lucky to be pooped on by a hummingbird. They're wrong! The only luck involved is that they're not the size of a Thanksgiving Turkey. He appreciated the shade as did we, but his head twitched constantly as he scouted his territory, his feedings were consistent to the feeders, but then one little thing changed. He got the sudden desire to do something out of normal. From his perch above us he did a pendulum swing, setting his wings so gracefully right down to the Purple Misty Salvia about 75 feet away. He fed from every developed flower and then returned right back to his perch above us.
It may sound like a little thing, but it's those little things, those variables that change slightly within their behavior, that we'll never understand. It's those things in all of the wonderful world of nature that makes each moment different and unique. That's what draws us to bird watching. It's the moments where they deviate slightly from the norm and do something that attracts our attention.
If every day were completely predictable about their behaviors, our interest would be quickly lost. It's the variables that have been thrown into their DNA that continue to draw us into a world of birding that's so exciting.
Ziggy, the male Ruby-throat hummingbird, sits here preening on one of his favorite perches. N.E. of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. June 14th, 2019.
If you walked into my yard and expected to see hummingbirds everywhere, you may be disappointed. You may even sit in the garden all day and see just a half a dozen sightings this time of year. But what you don't understand is that from one of 15 specific little perches there'd be two tiny eyes peering down at you, at just about any given time. The truth is that Ziggy rarely leaves the garden. He may do a 20 minutes disappearing act to another yard within half a mile, but he'd be back and on patrol as quick as possible.
Habits are formed from situations and occurrences that have happened throughout our lifetime, and this applies also to hummingbirds. Every danger, flower, feeder, predator and storm will affect every move of a hummingbird in its future. Those advantages or obstacles are what form the way a hummingbird will react in order to thrive or survive. Dangers in your garden may affect the time a hummingbird chooses to show up, or redirect its path to another garden. The number of feeders you choose to hang around your garden will absolutely affect the choice in which garden it'll return to. They, like all living things, are creatures of habit, and those habits are the blueprints for us to read and learn their behaviors. Like I mentioned earlier, you could look at any one of Ziggy's 15 perches and it's almost a guarantee you would see him 90% of the time. They don't change a lot unless something forces that change. Learn their perches, favorite flowers, favorite feeders, locations they'll perch out of the wind or during storms, guarding perches, times they bathe, frequency of their feeding, quirks and peculiarities, and you will soon understand your birds a whole lot better. You may also realize that while you've been out and about in your garden, there have been two little eyes staring at you the whole time. Here are just a half dozen locations he'll perch, but what's absolutely incredible is that out of the thousands of individual dead sticks throughout our Maple trees, he will use exactly the same one as where he is preening in the final image. This is also the way you'll know who the top dog is. The dominant male wants to be seen and has absolutely NO fear of others seeing him. If a male sneaks in for a drink then leaves, you know you've got an intruder or multiple males hanging around. These images may seem obvious to spot him, but trust me, he is tiny, and he can blend in, and these are zoomed in photos. If you didn't know a hummingbird was around, you just wouldn't notice him that easily. When you know the perches, they're much easier to spot.
Male Ruby-throat hummingbird. N.E. of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. June 13th, 2019.
A female Ruby-throat showed up in the yard, and 10 minutes later, another. Was she the same bird?
These captures were from over 100 feet away, and although I could tell they were both females with the bare eye, I wanted to capture on camera so I could analyze the finer details. Females don't often give us great opportunities because they've got one thing in mind, and to quote Josh Wilson, "get in, get out, nobody gets hurt". Females avoid the confrontation because their dependability is crucial to the survival of the young that await them. They simply get a drink and get back to the nest. In this sense 3 birds depend on the actions of one bird. She has to be ninja-like to avoid being seen and avoid dangers.
With the multiple feeders hung around my garden, the females will typically choose those furthest from the house or well protected.
So here we have two different female photos. Are they the same female? I've written about this in my book in extensive detail, but I'll condense it to this - physical appearance, habits and patterns. Although these birds were created very similar in appearance, there is oftentimes enough to differentiate between.
Physical appearance - from the distance you can see that one female has a slightly darker gray band(often referred to as a nest band) than the other. The overall color of the breast feathers is also different, one a little more gray than the other.
Habits - These are the quirky things that makes each bird unique in personality. Many of these quirky things in their behavior were formed by situations or dangers they've encountered. I've seen some females feed almost as quickly as the movement of the head of a woodpecker, and this habit remains the same every time she shows up in my yard. Watch for uniqueness in behavior. Even take a look at the the position of the feeding on each bird. One sits on the side of the perch and angle feeds, while the other sits more traditionally. If you notice this repeatedly from the angle feeder, you will identify that female more consistently. They develop habits just like we do, and eventually that becomes this birds MO.
Pattern - just like animals follow the same trails, so do hummingbirds follow the same Air Trails, especially the females during nesting season. They are creatures of habits and patterns. They will continue the same pattern so long as they're undisturbed. If they incur issues or dangers along a certain flight pattern, it's only then that they'll deviate from that pattern. Watch the direction they come into the yard, and watch the direction they leave. You will be amazed of the consistency at how they leave. She may dip from the feeder and hug the ground like a guided missile out of the garden, or she may have a trail leading up directly through the branches of a particular tree.
These are a few of the ways you can identify different birds and to predict your population. Watch for the finer details, and you may be pleasantly surprised at how many different birds are visiting your garden.
Two different female Ruby-throat hummingbirds, N.E. of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. June 13, 2019.
His usual time was early morning just after sun up, but he often times made an exception. I was up early hoping to get some captures, and he didn't disappoint. His only issue was me being a little too close. Even Ziggy expected a little privacy. So the captures had to be about 60 feet away.
He wet his feet, dipped his bill, and did a little roll-about in the water. He had the entire songbird spa to himself. No one else was invited to the party, just the way he liked it.
His refreshing 1 - 2 minute cool bath was the perfect start to the morning. A little shake-off, and then it was back to work, with mating to be had, and others to be chased.
Adult Male Ruby-throat hummingbird, June 15, 2019. Long about a Saturday night.
Many variable can dictate what the same hummingbird will look like under different conditions. Body temperature, anxiety level, brightness of the environment and posture can all be factors in how a hummingbird will appear. The different body appearances can also give you a great understanding of the mood or state of mind of that bird. For instance, if a hummingbird has its body feathers ruffled, it's usually in a relaxed state and just regulating its body temperature. If it has it's feathers tight to the body, it's on higher alert. If the tail is splayed apart while body feathers are tight, it's angry and ready for combat.
When trying to identify hummingbirds by appearance, it can be far more difficult, especially if you're trying to find similarities and differences with your regular visitors. Just the turn or tilt of the head can be the difference from a dark throat to a glimpse of red, to a laser beam of red. Birds can be misidentified so easily just by a single factor affecting their appearance.
All 3 of these images are the same Ruby-throat hummingbird. They are all in the same light. It's a sunny day that reflects light off the gorget feathers. The bright light dilutes the color and makes it a bit more rusty/orange. If you had a light cloud cover it would allow natural light to reflect the true color. The following color is from a different time and location, and was also a cloudy day. Those light conditions showed the true and most impressive color. You don't see the bright sun reflecting off the throat, but you do see the the hummingbird in it's most natural appearance. The final 2 pictures are both Ruby-throats, but in different light conditions. Under the same conditions, you'd have to look very carefully to tell them apart, but under these conditions, it's very easy to misidentify at least one of them.
Just over a week ago, all of the hard work from the past few months of raising seedlings would come to fruition. Trays of plants would now be transferred to their permanent homes. Excited for this time of year, I loaded up tray after tray into the back of a car. With the seats folded down we managed about 15 trays of plants. With no time to waste we jumped in the car and headed for the country. When we arrived we started to unload the car."Oh NO", I repeated several times. "What have I done"? I must have said it enough times for my wife to seriously think I was confessing a past murder. "What is it", she asked? I told her I had done the unthinkable. "I left my camera and binoculars at home". "Oh, that's it", she responded. I don't think the look I gave even phased her. I think every photographer on the planet would relate that there is no greater mistake than not packing these necessities during the busiest bird migration week of the year. I must've said 50 times before the evening was out, "how stupid of me"! I just said to my wife, " I guess I'll just have to capture the memories and not the images". Then I remembered the old pair of binoculars sitting on the table. They were a pair not even worthy of being stolen when we had a home break-in. One eye focal was blurry and the other was like looking through a foggy shower door. In other words, they were just one step above garbage. I did make use of them to some degree, but after a staring through these multiple times throughout the few days, it gave me the impression that my eyesight was seriously failing me. Not having my camera was even worse. Some wonderful mental shots will never be captured to image. These are the times when many things tend to happen. One male Ruby throat sat right beside us in the Bluebird Clematis for a long time, while other first time birds made an appearance, but with no evidence to prove.
I must say that it did force me to enjoy the moments rather than just trying to capture them. Would I ever try this experiment on myself again and leave my equipment at home, just to soak up the incredible memories? Not a chance on this planet. As much as I enjoyed the moments, it's just something I'll never repeat again.
So here's the only shot from this last Saturday, June 1st, 2019. N.E. of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. This male is easy to spot when it enters the yard. He flies with his tail flared out. I don't know if it's a medical condition or from fear growing up. They usually flare out the tail for the purpose of intimidation or out of fear, but this one flies everywhere with it flared. It also affects the speed it travels. It's almost like flying around with a windsock attached to it. He is an adult male Ruby-throat.
While spending the winter months in Mexico, he had plenty of time to sit back and sip the nectaritas of the South while dreaming of the garden that awaited him at his Northern home in Canada. Then his 3 months northern journey began. He lifted off with a Southerly wind that guided him across the Gulf of Mexico. Hours of flight in the open sky gave him plenty of time to imagine how his garden would look from the summer before. Which flowers, feeders and fountains awaited him at his northern residence. The longing for his summer home was equal to that of mine waiting for what might or might not be Ziggy. With multiple years behind him, I had doubts that Ziggy would make it another season. I waited with great anticipation, not knowing which day one would show. Over the previous 3 years Ziggy's arrival time was May 18th, 17th, and again the 18th. His internal clock was brilliant. My hopes for an early arrive would be trumped by Ziggy's accurate system. I watched every hour, scanning all 10 feeder repeatedly on May 16th. No show. I repeated the same thing May 17th. Again, no show. Saturday, May 18th I got up early once again and watched intently. Nearly every other songbird that I waited for had arrived over the last few days, but only one remaining bird needed to show. With every hour that passed, I had little doubt that Ziggy would be around to continue his legacy. I expected others to step in and show off a little character of their own.
I went to sit under the large Maple tree that towered over the yard, and just then it happened. The speedy little missile did what he always did. He roasted by me very quickly, only to perch on the lowest spindly little branch that was 10 feet ahead of me, just over eye level. His attitude was no better after a Mexican vacation. He arrived with a superiority complex. "Everyone stop what you're doing. Ziggy has now entered the garden". I'm certain the nearby roasting was intentional. He remembered me from last year, but he didn't remain perched for long. I'm sure the feeders had a high priority, but he chose to go straight to the fountain. He had no hesitation whatsoever. He dipped down so quickly and gripped the rock that he remembered quite well from the year before, while the cool water rolled over his feet. He did a bit of snorkeling and submerged his bill deep into the water. After a minute of bathing, he sat on the perch specially prepared for him and shook off. Then he went for a second round in the fountain. After a second drying, he made it clear to all the small birds in the yard, he was the one in charge. He terrorized a couple small birds and put the fear into them all. Then he checked out every feeder that hung from the previous year. He drank until he could no more. "Life is wonderful, and I'm finally home!"
May 18th, 2019. N.E. of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Adult Male Ruby-throat hummingbird.
Although my book gives many ideas on how to attract hummingbirds, I want to give you a brief word of advice on the most impactful way to attract them to your garden. Of course, if you put a feeder up in your yard, at some point you will attract a hummingbird. But to give yourself a greater advantage here is one key thing to remember. Don't place a hummingbird feeder in the location where YOU see it, place multiple feeders in locations where they can see it. When hummingbirds are flying around looking for food, they don't look in every nook and cranny trying to find it. They are opportunistic. They are visual. They see targets and they fly to them. Here's the key - place feeders and flowers in open locations. Place them on all four sides of your home. Make them visible from every direction.
Now think about this - if you walked past your home from all sides, would you spot flowers and feeders? Hummingbirds don't fly to the tight spots looking for hidden treasures. They see targets and they are attracted to them. Once they spot one of your feeders, you should have a connecting feeder in clear sight of that one. Now continue this with all of your feeders. Each one should be connected to another, but not all grouped in one spot. If you have your feeders in one cluster, you'll often times get one dominant male taking over all of them. This applies primarily to the Spring mating season.
If you follow these simple guidelines, I promise you the numbers will increase. When a hummingbird has multiple choices condensed into a small territory, there is little reason for them to move on to another territory.
Here is Ziggy, my dominant male. He has a choice of 10 feeders within his territory. He frequently checks each one of them out, but because they are spread out over a larger area, it has allowed multiple other birds to sneak in for a drink without always been seen.
Adult male Ruby-throat hummingbird. May 26, 2018. N.E. of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
Author of Jewel of the North. Please post your comments and questions.