Little Hummers: A New Generation Offers A Sign Of Hope

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Two hummingbirds in a nest at the author's home. Dr. Maria Bowling photo

The poet Emily Dickenson had it right. “Hope is the thing with feathers.”

Hummingbirds have been my savior. Spring and summer have been filled with doubt, fear and anger, yet my miniscule feathered friends have given me comfort, faith and gratitude. They are curious, graceful, playful, fanciful, fierce and resilient.

The warm-blooded creatures, whose hears beat 250 times per minute at rest, are often mistaken as insects. At only three and four inches long and .11 ounces or the weight of a penny, their bright personality and tenacious behavior make up for their diminutive size. Never underestimate a hummer.

The Ruby-throated hummingbirds, Archilochus colubris, the only hummer east of the Mississippi, arrive in New York in May from Central America and Mexico flapping their wings more than 50 times per second and traveling 30 miles per hour on their nearly 1,000-mile journey.

I eagerly await the opening of Bill Koller’s Long Island Hummingbird Plants where I order online at lihummingbirdplants.com and arrange pick-up, usually in mid-May, just as the hummingbirds arrive in town.

Males come first and wait for the females.

“He’ll just have a party,” said Alice Raimondo at Cornell Cooperative Extension in Riverhead. “Males mate with different females and move on.”

Raimondo, a horticulture consultant, has been at the Horticulture Diagnostic Lab for 19 years. As a child, her father taught her bird calls and she’s since been bitten hard by the hummingbird “bug.”

I’ve also bonded with my father over hummingbirds. In a relationship that has been tense, our mutual love of hummingbirds brings us together. It’s an amazing common ground.

A mother hummingbird feeds its baby. Dr. Maria Bowling photo

Males tend to be smaller and they are the ones with the ruby throats. But you can only catch it when the light is right. Iridescence not pigment gives the male its ruby feathers.

“Males have a darker coloration over their head, a darker mask over their eyes and a five o’clock shadow,” said Raimondo. “Females are more green and blend in better with the foliage, where males will stick out.”

Unlike adult males, females and juvenile males have light gray throats and two white feathers on each side of their tails.

Hummingbirds hover and fly in all directions including straight up and down, backward and upside down. They see ultraviolet colors in the spectrum invisible to the human eye and have three protective eyelids. They have bigger brains than any other bird and bigger hearts than any other animal, relatively speaking.

They are territorial and will come back to the same place every year, if it is to their liking. At the moment, I’m watching two fight over a black and blue salvia in a pot on my porch. They are most likely siblings, born in my yard.

I’ve always dreamed of finding a hummingbird nest but never thought I would. The nests are so small and the trees are so numerous and thick, I assumed one would be forever hidden from my sight.

Every year, we pick our loot up in Medford and rush home to plant various salvias, bee balm, cardinal flowers, verbena bonariensis, porterweed, golden shrimp, firecracker plants, tango mint, coral honeysuckle, and vermillionaire cuphea in terracotta containers.

They say hummingbird plants are resistant to deer. Don’t believe them. The deer and the rabbits ate the coral honeysuckle I expected to climb and feed the birds. Do not underestimate the voraciousness of appetites.

That said, next year, I’m going to take Raimondo’s advice and plant native perennials such as red bee balm and cardinal flower, into the ground where they can grow in large clumps.

Although she’s hesitant to recommend the creeping trumpet vine, she can’t resist.

“The native can become weedy and aggressive but hummingbirds really enjoy them, as well as orioles,” she said. “Juvenile hummingbirds are smaller than the flowers and fit their entire body inside with only their little rear end sticking out. For that reason alone, I enjoy them.”

Hummers feed every 20 minutes. Their tongue is “somewhat broadened and brushy at the tip, allowing capillary action to draw in more fluid,” according to Operation Ruby Throat at rubythroat.org. “A hummingbird laps up nectar with its tongue by extending and contracting it up to 13 times per second.”

Hummingbirds can’t live on nectar alone. Gnats, mosquitoes, spiders and small caterpillars are protein sources used for muscle building. Muscles are important to support the constant motion of a hummingbird.

“Everything is fast with hummingbirds,” said Raimondo.

About a month after their arrival in mid-June, I began to notice two hummingbirds acting strangely at the end of the driveway. I thought it was odd because I’d never seen them in the trees before, only feeding on the flowers at the other end of the property.

Once, twice, then three times and I knew something big was up. So much excitement was in the air.

Then, I walked out in my pajamas, eyes half closed, pre-coffee and there it was, brighter than day. A perfect thimble of patchwork, made of mossy lichen, lay with pliable webbing, lined with soft thistle.

Sitting on an outstretched branch, reaching over the driveway. So hidden, if you were not dreaming about the day, you may not see it at all.

The female alone builds the nest, 10 to 20 feet above ground, and sits on her two itty bitty white eggs for two weeks to keep them warm. Upon hatching, the babies are featherless and the mother will leave them alone to get food. This is the most vulnerable time.

I worried through a storm, but Koller assured me, “They are tougher than you think.”

In the blink of an eye, they were outside of the nest crying for food on a telephone wire.

I asked my friend Dr. Maria Bowling if she wanted to help document the nest. The Springs acupuncturist, who is endlessly talented, has photographed hummingbirds in her own garden, in addition to eagles, owls and shorebirds.

“To see the babies wake up in the first light was a very precious and hopeful experience,” she said. “Watching the mother, and the baby in their feeding time was perhaps one of the most magical gifts that nature has ever given me.”

I have to agree. This hummingbird nest is everything. It kept me going when nothing else could. When my anxiety was about to hit the roof, I’d take a short walk, to check on their progress. A tiny beak. Two beaks. Feathers!

I can look out my window from bed and see them thrive on the fuchsias, yellow, reds and blues and I want to do everything in my power to help them survive, at least another eight years.

They’ll head south too soon. By the end of September, they will have molted their worn-out feathers and grown clean, crisp ones for the long journey back.

“Adults here, right now, are molting tired feathers,” said Raimondo. “The male at home is rough around the edges. He’s not looking as bright yet.”

“I’ve seen two or three going after each other, smack bills with each other, like little sword fights,” she said. “It’s pretty amazing.”

My favorite time is when a hummingbird comes face to face with me. It could be a younger male being a tough guy or showing off, but I feel it’s much more curious than anything.

“They’re not too worried,” said Raimondo. “I don’t think they see us as a threat.”

The highly evolved bird has kept good company. More importantly, it trusted me.

It would be silly of me to assume they will refurbish their nest next year. But I pray they do. Never give up hope.

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