For the Birds Radio Program: Hummingbirds

Original Air Date: May 10, 1995 Rerun Dates: May 26, 1997

Today Laura Erickson talks about the littlest bird of them all. 3:13

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This is the week to set out hummingbird feeders. These microscopic migrant workers will be reappearing any time now, and during the inevitable cool weather that marks a north country May, they’ll quickly appear wherever they spy the color red in hopes of a succulent, nectar-laden flower. Hummingbirds do well with or without our help—they spend a lot of time near the tips of spruces, lapping up bits of running sap and picking off tiny swarming insects, and they also search out fresh holes from sapsuckers. As flowers open up, there’ll be even more sources of natural food. But without hummingbird feeders, we wouldn’t see many hummers, and even if it isn’t necessary, sugar water does make their lives easier and more pleasant, so feeding them can be good for everyone involved.

Make hummingbird water with one-quarter-cup of sugar to every cup of water. Hummers prefer it even sweeter, but they need a certain amount of water to metabolize a certain amount of sugar, and if you use more sugar than this one to four ratio, they’ll need to find fresh water or they’ll get dehydrated. To prevent nasty fungal diseases, never use honey in a hummingbird feeder, and to prevent all kinds of other diseases, make sure to clean out the feeder frequently. Also, change the water every few days, even every day or two during hot spells, because fermenting sugar water causes liver damage.

If all these warnings make feeding hummingbirds sound like more bother than it’s worth, one close look at a hummingbird contentedly filling its tank at your feeder will change your mind.

Hummingbirds take up sugar water with their delicate tongue, which is long enough to stick out well over an inch beyond their long beak. I’ve had the rare pleasure of being licked by a hummingbird, and can attest that a hummingbird’s tongue feels like gossamer thread, only somehow thread with a purpose. Under a microscope, this delicate structure is amazingly complicated. At the base, the tongue is tubular, and quickly divides into two branches like a microscopic double drinking straw. Halfway down the tongue, the tubes separate. If you happen to be very close to a hummingbird who sticks its tongue out at you, you might notice that the tongue is forked like a snake’s, yet far too delicate to remind anyone of a serpent. The two tips are fringed and feather-like, giving it added surface area to more efficiently collect syrup—and collect syrup, they do! A single Ruby-throat can down over twice its weight in sugar water, plus whatever insects and natural nectar it can find, every day, thanks to that exquisite little tongue. Hummingbirds can hum with their tongues in or out, since they make that humming sound with their wings, but those little chittering notes they make are apparently strictly tongue-in-cheek.