For the Birds Radio Program: Where are the hummingbirds?

Original Air Date: July 3, 1989

Re-recorded from July 21, 1986

Audio missing


(Recording of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird).

Hummingbird feeders are supposed to attract hummingbirds–that’s why people set them out–but this time of summer, many people only seem to get bees, ants, and Downy Woodpeckers at their hummingbird feeders. Where are the hummingbirds?

They’re out to lunch. Seriously. Up here in the Northland, there are just so many natural flowers–in gardens, fields, and pastures–that hummingbirds can get plenty of natural food–nectar and small insects– without human assistance. In barren metropolitan areas, deserts, and dense mature forests where flowers are less abundant and varied, hummingbirds rely heavily on feeders in summer. Up here, though, hummingbirds usually set up their nesting territories near a good selection of natural flowers, which are, after all, a more nutritious source of food than sugar water. Of course, some individuals continue to visit feeders all summer, especially in bad weather. Come August, when they start building up their fat reserves for their long flight down to Mexico and Central America, they’ll be back in force at the feeders.

The motto of the male hummingbird seems to be “love ‘em and leave ‘em.” After a one-night stand with a female, he lights out for the territory, sticking her with all the consequences of their romance. He spends his time flitting around, getting into street brawls with bumblebees and other hummingbirds, plus he’ll take on a kingbird, crow, or even an eagle that crosses the invisible boundary of his turf.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, mom has to build the nest all by herself. She weaves a tight, shallow cup, about the size of a walnut, using soft down from ferns, milkweed, fireweed, thistles, and young oak leaves. The upper edge is curved inward to keep the eggs from rolling out. She binds the whole thing together with spider webs or silk from a tent caterpillar’s nest. Finally, she decorates the outside with lichens and mosses so the nest will blend in with the tree branch.

She has to incubate her two eggs–the size of small beans–and then feed and care for the babies all alone. But she doesn’t seem to mind single parenthood–she’ll go through with this breeding cycle two or even three times a season.

For such tiny birds, hummingbirds manage to get into some big trouble. They have been caught in spider webs, impaled on thistles, swept into lakes by a big wind, snatched out of the air and eaten by frogs and dragonflies, and snapped up by praying mantises. One banded bird lived for at least five years in the wild, but most hummingbirds don’t even survive until their first birthday–as Kermit the Frog says, it’s not easy being green.

(Recording of a hummingbird).

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been, “For the Birds.”