H is for Hummingbirds (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.

Sun, 19 Apr 2020

H is for Hummingbirds

I'd been delaying this entry, hoping the hummingbirds would show up. I only have a couple of them right now: a male broad-tailed and a male black-chinned. I hope things will perk up later: in midsummer the rufous and calliope hummingbirds arrive and things usually get a lot more active. But meanwhile, I have an H entry to write.

[Rufous hummingbird showing off his copper throat] The black-chinned hummingbirds we have here now have a beautiful purple throat. With, yes, a little bit of black there. Why womeone would look at a bird with an iridescent purple throat with a small black border and name it "black-chinned" is beyond me.

Unfortunately, this purple throat is even more sensitive to light angle than other hummingbirds' colors, and I haven't been able to get a photo that really shows it. Hummingbird feathers -- and particularly the feathers of the males' colorful throats -- have a structure that diffracts the light, creating beautiful iridescent colors that only show up when the sun is at just the right angle. If you watch a male black-chinned hummer at the feeder, its throat will look black most of the time, with occasional startling flashes of purple. You have to take a lot of photos and get lucky with timing to catch the flash. I'll get it some day. Meanwhile, here's a lovely black-chinned hummingbird photo from Arizona.

So instead, here's a photo of a male rufous hummingbirds, which will show up later in the summer. Rufous are a lot easier to photograph. Their brilliant copper-colored throats show up from a much wider range of angles, and rufous males are even more territorial than other hummers, so once one decides it owns your feeder, it will pose in the sunlight for most of the day, ready to chase any pretenders away.

[Female hummingbirds can tolerate each other at the same feeder, sometimes] Really, all male hummers are territorial. The males will chase the females away as well as other males -- sometimes I'm amazed any of these species manage to raise young, given how the males try to keep the nesting females away from their food source.

Females chase each other too, most of the time; but near the end of the day, when everybody's getting tired and ready for bed, they'll tolerate each other and sometimes you'll actually see them sitting quietly together.

One thing that I found helpful in attracting hummingbirds -- though it doesn't seem to be working very well this year -- is to put up a second feeder on the other side of the house, out of sight of the first feeder. I used to think that if I only had a couple of hummingbirds and they weren't drinking enough to clean out one feeder, it made no sense to put up a second. But one year I tried setting up one out of sight -- and I think it gave a place for the less aggressive, beta birds to feed. And then those birds would come to the main feeder too, when the alpha bird wasn't in sight. So go ahead and put out a few more feeders than you think you need.

[Swallowtail at the hummingbird feeder] Hummingbirds don't seem to mind non-hummers at the feeder. I seldom see butterflies paying any attention to hummingbird feeders, but they certainly have a tongue long enough to reach the nectar. This swallowtail was a welcome visitor.

[Rock squirrel with a sweet tooth] Larger visitors are less welcome. One year the house finches developed a sweet tooth and spent all day sitting on the hummingbird feeders. Another year, this rock squirrel decided some dessert might be in order after finishing all the birdseed. He wasn't successful in getting much.

But squirrels hanging from the edge of the feeder, and house finches sitting on one side, illustrate a problem I had with nearly all hummingbird feeders: hanging feeders leak if they're ever tilted over.

[Bee problem with hanging feeders] It's often windy here, and the wind would blow the hanging feeders sideways, and some nectar would leak out. Even if it wasn't windy, house finches and squirrels would pull the feeder off vertical, and it would leak.

And then the bees would come. Hundreds of them. We tried everything: extracts and oils like cinnamon and clove, a little oil, commercial bee guards, homemade bee guards, many different styles of feeder, sweeter nectar in a cup somewhere else to try to tempt the bees away. Nothing helped. If the feeder was hanging, it couldbe pulled off vertical, at which point it would leak and bring the bees. And the hummingbirds can't fight the bees, so they go somewhere else.

I don't know why other people don't seem to have this problem. Dave thinks we must have a apiarist neighbor. I know I'm supposed to like bees; but after several years fighting with them, I just don't.

[Satellite-dish feeders fit on a PVC pipe] The only solution I ever found to the bee problem was to give up on hanging feeders entirely, and mount all feeders on posts so they can't swing.

That works. But it creates two new problems. First, you can't buy post-mounted hummingbird feeders. They're all designed to hang. But the "satellite-dish" style feeder pictured here has a recess underneath that happens to fit perfectly over a standard 2" PVC pipe. That style of feeder is also wonderfully easy to clean. Unfortunately, they've gotten harder to find; when I could of mine broke last year, I really had to hunt to find a place to buy new ones.

The second problem is ants. For hanging feeders, you can buy "ant guards" -- either a cup holding water or oil, or an inverted cup holding some kind of probably nasty insecticide. Neither one works with a post-mounted feeder, nobody sells ant guards for post-mounted feeders, and you definitely do need an ant guard.

You can rub some oil or grease around the post, and the ants can't climb past it. But if hummingbirds brush up against the grease, it will get in their feathers and possibly kill them.

So I took some cardboard from a soda carton or pizza box, rolled it into a cone that fits around the post, and covered it with packing tape to make it waterproof. Then I smeared the inside of the cone, and the post inside the cone, with automotive grease. The cardboard cone keeps the grease hidden so the birds can't accidentally brush against it, and it keeps the ants from climbing the post.

[Adding a post to a hanging feeder] If the time comes when I can't find satellite-dish feeders, it is possible to convert hanging feeders to add a post mount. You can drill a hole through the bottom, then use a screw to attach it to a wooden post, or a post that's been pounded into a metal pipe. If you use lots of silicone glue, it won't leak. But it's a lot of extra work.

Finally, a few photos I like.

[Female hummingbird posing] I got fairly close to this female because she was occupied with her own territorial battles -- against a sphinx moth. These moths are almost as large as hummingbirds, and behave a lot like them, hovering in front of flowers (but not feeders) to drink the nectar. This hummer decided she didn't want the moth sharing her flower patch, and spent about half an hour dive-bombing the moth to try to chase it away. As far as I could tell, the moth was completely unaware of the hummingbird and went on contentedly drinking nectar. Eventually the hummer tired and retreated a few feet to sit on a fence rail, where I got some nice pictures of her.

[Mirror, mirror] The window feeder has been a bit disappointing. Mostly, hummers seem afraid of the window (or the other hummingbird they see reflected there) and won't drink from it unless there's no other option. But every now and then, a poor abused hummer who had been chased off all the other feeders would use it.

[Hummingbird and rainbow] Late summer is a wonderful time here -- not just because of the four types of hummingbirds but because of the thunderstorms and rainbows. 'Nuff said.

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