Toree’s Stories: Spotting the smallest of birds at Lake Tahoe
April 29, 2015
Hummingbirds are among the smallest of birds, most measuring between 3 and 5 inches long. For comparison, the pygmy nuthatch is about 4 inches long, the mountain chickadee 5 to 6 inches and the house wren 4 to 5 inches.
The smallest bird of all, the bee hummingbird, is only 2 inches long. Alas, this bird is not found at Lake Tahoe. You will have to travel to Cuba or the West Indies to see this tiny bird.
One year I had three feeders hung outside my row of living room windows and I ended up with a hummingbird war. It was in the fall, during winter migration.
One little guy decided he owned the feeders and would not let any other humming bird near. He would perch on a branch in a tree across from the feeders and peer from side to side. If another bird dared come near, he would swoop in, chittering and chattering, and chase the intruder away.
I finally moved one feeder to the side of the house so the other visitors could get a drink. Male hummers are territorial in this way and will even guard a feeder against its own young. The solution is to place feeders in various areas around your house, so that a possessive male can't see more than two feeders at a time.
In addition to nectar or sugar water, hummingbirds need protein which they get from eating insects. Innocent-looking as they are, they are skilled hunters, catching bugs in flight by opening their bills wide and snapping them shut on the flying insect.
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They need to eat at least half their weight daily in nectar alone, and this can mean 1,000 trips to flowers or feeders. A hummingbird's metabolism is incredibly fast, the highest of any animal, with a heart rate of 600 beats per minute while at rest, double that in flight, and a body temperature of 105 degrees F.
In the evening when temperatures are dropping, a hummingbird finds a safe place to perch, fluffs up his feathers to conserve his body heat, and enters a semi-hibernation state called torpor. His body temperature may fall by half and his heart rate slows to 200 beats per minute.
In the morning, when the ambient temperature starts to rise, he will take about 20 minutes to come out of the torpid state by shivering. Heart and breathing rates increase until he is ready to fly off in search of food.
There are about 350 species of hummingbird, with a few species potentially found in our area: Anna's, rufous, black-chinned, broad-tailed and calliope.
Almost all hummingbirds migrate, with the exception of Anna's, which tend to be permanent residents within their range.
To prepare for their long journey, they stock up on food stores, gaining as much as twice their weight. The excess weight is stored as fat. Hummingbirds have the longest migration of any bird, given their body weight.
I found a fascinating, hour-long documentary on YouTube called "Hummingbirds: Documentary on the Secrets of Hummingbirds," which you can find by typing the title into the search bar on YouTube. I think it is well worth watching and I learned much of this material by viewing it myself.
If you get lucky enough to see a male Anna's hummingbird attempting to attract the attention of a female, you will see him fly high above her, then do a steep dive, swooping back up before he hits the ground. At the bottom of his dive, he spreads his wings at just the right moment to create a loud chirping sound through his tail feathers.
If he succeeds, they will mate; he will then leave her alone to build her two-inch nest out of plant fibers, animal hair and downy feathers, bound together with spider silk. She lays her two tiny eggs, incubates them and cares for her young while the male is off attempting to woo another female.
Increase your odds of spotting these busy, buzzing birds by hanging out a sugar feeder, which is one part white sugar, 4 parts water. There is no need to add coloring to the water, most feeders contain the color red
Keep it clean — empty and refill weekly or more during the heat of the summer. Never use honey, which can ferment.
Toree Warfield is an avid nature lover, and writes this column to teach and stimulate interest in the marvels that surround us. See the new website: saveourplanetearth.com to read columns and to find links to bird song recordings, additional photos and other content.
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