For the Birds Radio Program: Hummingbirds

Original Air Date: Aug. 27, 2004

Laura is savoring her hummingbirds while they’re still here.

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As September approaches, hummingbird numbers wane, making the ones still visiting my feeders all the more precious. There’s a feeder on the window just over my desk, and when I’m working, I can hear buzzing wings whenever a hummingbird approaches. More often than not, two fly in at once, not in a spirit of cooperation but because the moment one hummingbird notices another one about to get a meal, it simply has to try to get in the way—a colossal waste of energy for both, a lose-lose strategy rather the way political discourse has been going on in America in recent years. But even though hummingbirds waste a good deal of their lives bickering, and don’t seem to learn to cooperate, their harassing one another doesn’t hurt anyone else and is entertaining and instructive for those of us of either political persuasion.

My hummingbirds have inexplicably developed a taste for suet this year. Every now and then I find one hovering at the suet feeder, either picking up tiny insects or unadulterated fat on its tiny, threadlike tongue. And once I watched a female hummingbird zip almost drunkenly along a crooked path just about exactly a millimeter from my window—I was mystified until I noticed a microscopic bug walking along on the inside of the window pane.

I’ve also been watching hummingbirds darting every which way within the branches of our cherry tree, where tiny insects are swarming. I’m not sure where this strong focus on insects and suet has come from, unless they’ve fallen victim to the low carb hype. But even with their taste for fat and protein, they still spend most of their time feeding on nectar and juices. We have a bumper crop of cherries this year, and the hummingbirds occasionally zip through the branches, sipping the juice from any cherries a squirrel or bigger bird has only partly eaten.

A satisfying meal filling a hummingbird’s stomach and crop may take 10 or 15 minutes to drain into the intestines. During that time of fullness, the hummingbird tends to sit quietly on a delicate twig, preening or just looking around at what’s going on. A couple of mine have staked out perches in the box elder outside my window, right where I can watch them when my mind wanders. Even when sitting, the male never seems to hold still, looking this way and that, this literal little busybody who doesn’t miss anything. When a Downy Woodpecker alights on the suet, the hummingbird studies his every move, sputtering and twittering, and suddenly zips up and tries to chase the woodpecker off. And about half the time the hummingbird actually wins the engagement, despite the fact that a Downy Woodpecker, weighing in at one-ounce, is about ten times more massive than a hummingbird. Sometimes I think the downy was leaving anyway, but part of the time it seems to go just because it doesn’t want to deal with the little twerp.

This week a couple of young Pileated Woodpeckers flew into the box elder when the male hummingbird was sitting in his usual perch. I’m sure he’s seen Pileateds before, but apparently didn’t expect them to land in his tree. He popped up off the branch like he was on a spring, and flew on wings beating so fast that they weren’t even a blur—they were invisible—to hover about a foot from the head of one of the woodpeckers, and studied it carefully. The woodpecker was absorbed with his woodworking project and didn’t look up, and when the hummingbird had satisfied his curiosity, he zipped over to the feeder, guzzled down some sugar water, and flew off. He came back half an hour or so later, but one of these times, he’ll head off for the year, and I won’t even realize he was at my feeder for the last time until it’s too late to say goodbye. Banded hummingbirds have survived for over 9 years, so chances are he’ll be back next year. But meanwhile, the days will seem a little colder than the thermometer says until my fiery little visitor returns.