Text and Photo by Renny S.Gehman
A blur, a whir—a hummingbird! Hummers are back at our Texas feeders after wintering in Mexico. Their arrival is eagerly anticipated and greatly enjoyed—almost everyone gets a thrill when they spot one of these tiny creatures. Here in North Texas that usually happens around April 1st and mine were right on time.
In our part of Texas the most common hummingbird in our garden is the ruby-throated, although this year I’ve been blessed with a visiting black-chinned male—who was nice enough to perch on a nearby bush long enough for me to see the purple throat which distinguishes it from the other visitors at my window feeder. Although in some lights, ruby throats and black chins can look similar, the most obvious distinguishing mark is their throat color: either red or purple. Both can look black in some lights! Since their females are so similar, I just assume that the female I’m also seeing is actually more than one!
Part of our fascination with hummers happens because of both their small size and swift speed. A hummingbird—any of the 18 species found in the U.S.—is the smallest bird, but can reach speeds equal to geese, accelerating to 60 mph from a standing start in less than three feet! No other species matches their flying skill—they can hover, fly up or down, and also backwards because of their extremely large breast muscles, which move their wings in a figure-8 pattern unique among birds.
With their high energy output, hummingbirds must eat every ten to fifteen minutes—a reason why they’re such regular visitors at our feeders. In fact, because of their energy requirements, hummers go into “torpor” or a reduced energy state at night when their heart beat slows, body temperature drops and they cannot move. But these little birds still use so much energy at rest, it is comparable to the amount a human uses during vigorous exercise.
The best way to help these high-energy flyers is to provide them with multiple food sources. Feeders are one food source humans can provide, but we need to remember some important guidelines:
- Red dye is not necessary—and may actually be harmful!
- Always boil your water.
- Do not use honey—use refined white sugar. Honey promotes dangerous fungal growth.
- Clean your feeders regularly—every few days, or even daily in hot weather—to avoid harmful fungal growth.
For detailed instructions, with amounts and proportions, follow this link to the Audubon Society’s website: http://www.audubon.org/news/how-make-hummingbird-nectar
Besides providing feeders, you can choose garden plants, like sage, honeysuckle and lantana, which attract hummingbirds—and often butterflies, as well. Some suggestions on planting a hummingbird garden are available in the Texas Parks and Wildlife brochure. To access online, follow this link: https://tpwd.texas.gov/publications/pwdpubs/media/pwd_br_w7000_1173.pdf.
Hummingbirds are fun; I’m never sure if I enjoy their iridescent colors, their acrobatic flying or their territorial squabbles more. They pack a lot of entertainment in a small package—and certainly demonstrate the truth of the familiar adage, Little, but Oh, my!
Ed Note: At Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge, visitors can enjoy Ruby-throated and occasional Black-chinned hummers at the feeder outside the Visitor Center and in the Butterfly Garden!