The favorite bird of the Llaneros

Published Aug 13th 2000 in Wildlife

Hummingbirds like tubular blossoms. First the red flowers are checked, and then any other color. If flowers are present, nectar becomes a major food source, but our nesting Black-Chinned Hummingbirds often have to make do with an insect diet in our driest years.

We found hummingbird nests for only the second time in 20 years at the Gone Native Arboretum this year. We always have at least two females every year, and each will lay eggs twice a year. By this time of the year the play battles of the adolescents sweep past us time and again as we work in the garden. Normally other people find the tiny cups of spider webs, not me. I found one filled with a feathering youngster right above a sitting area. How could we have not seen it for the previous two weeks? We must be blind and unobservant dorks!

Hummers are very sensitive to the energy costs of defending a nectar site. When the amount of nectar remaining drops below the amount of energy needed to defend it, the hummer leaves, or at the very least, no longer fights other hummingbirds for the resource. The more nectar available in a territory, the more vocal our blackchins become, chittering at almost any bird that comes into its territory. Even roadrunners are chased, as well as kingbirds, mockingbirds and other birds that have no interest in the nectar. Hummingbirds will also hassle Bullock's Orioles and House Finches -- who are nectar feeders that sit and eat the flowers from which the hummer sips.

Some plants have been found to slowly regulate a large nectar flow, so a hummingbird has to defend it all day. Others release only a tiny bit of nectar, so hummers will set up a "trap line", visiting each flower in the area one at a time every hour or so.

Black-Chinned Hummingbirds return to Midland in late March. Recent plantings of flowers preferred by hummers as well as hummingbird feeders have likely increased the number of hummingbirds, and is changing their ranges, wintering ranges, and possibly migration patterns.

The Anna's Hummer, originally migrating from Mexico to California, now has a small percentage of its population migrating southeast from California to winter from in a region from Midland to Corpus Christi, and on to southern Louisiana. Here in West Texas, we see the Calliope Hummingbird much more often than in previous decades.

The feeders and plantings have definitely enabled amateur birdwatchers to document their migration more accurately. Until Midland existed, migrating hummers (who can fly 500 miles nonstop) probably zipped over the Southern Llano Estacado to other more productive locations.

In migration, which starts in late July, we find four species of hummingbirds with regularity. The most common are the Broad-tailed Hummingbirds. Males of this species are easily identified by the metallic whir of their wings, as well as the red throat and reddish wash on their sides and patches of red in the tail.

Rufous Hummingbirds also appear every summer. Males are orange, and incredibly pugnacious, chasing birds, cats, humans, and probably even cars and trains!

Ruby Throated Hummingbirds have a notched tail as well as the red-throat. Only one or two are seen by the birdwatchers during each fall migration. The Calliope Hummingbirds (with red single feathers fanned out on their throat) are the smallest Hummers in North America.

It is almost impossible to identify female hummingbirds -- even for advanced birdwatchers with them in hand. Any hummer with a clear whitish or grayish throat is a female of the above species. A few other species have visited Midland one or two times, so when a weird or large species of hummer is seen the birders call Sibley Nature Center so we can put it on the "bird hotline" so every interested birder can see it.

I have never found a hummer in torpor. On chilly nights hummers will go into suspended animation, lowering their body heat to conserve energy. During the summer, the hummers at the Gone Native Arboretum mostly eat in the morning and late evening, appearing to avoid the worst heat of the day. At Sibley, however, the male that lives in the trees at the pond hunts insects all day long. He perches on the highest dead branch in a drought-killed tree, constantly zipping out to catch the chironomid midges the pond produces.

We are always asked when hummingbird feeders should be taken down. A feeder that attracts a hummer after the end of October is probably saving that hummer's life. Hummers migrate as soon as they are strong enough to do so. Feeders never hold a hummingbird in Midland and cause it to die of exposure. Do not believe that silly and ignorant crackpot folk tale!!!