The When, Where and How of Hummingbirds

My friend and I were visiting on my porch—socially distanced, it needs to be said—enjoying a quiet conversation, but every once in a while she couldn’t help but scrunch up her shoulders in an involuntary response. It wasn’t our conversation but the loud whirring buzz of a hummingbird zooming in to take a sip from the feeder hanging inches behind her head. Like a mini attack helicopter! Sometimes he (flashing his iridescent male plumage) didn’t stop for a drink but just wanted to be certain no one else was getting any of his feeder-food. Honestly, we weren’t even thinking of imbibing anything!

But there was contention, hence the drama. At least two other hummers made attempts to approach the feeder. The “owner” would swoop in and in a burst of bravado would chase the others away. That’s just my interpretation of the action; at least one other bird–a rival–looked exactly like the proprietor. But one was a bit smaller. Was it a youngster who didn’t know the rules? Could it have been the offspring of the male in charge? Hummingbirds are very territorial, so do they actively chase away their own young?

In the mid 1940s Margaret wrote and had distributed a collection of pamphlets she called “Washington Nature Notes,” one of which featured the Rufous Hummingbird. In it she describes the love life of this fiery species, noting that, …once the loved one has succumbed [to the ardent display tactics used to woo a mate] and the honeymoon is over, our gay Lothario is off and away with a troop of other carefree males. All summer long they flit from flower to flower without a thought of domestic duties.

In other words, the male bird wouldn’t know his own offspring at all, so it is strictly a territorial battle and has nothing to do with careful parents getting young to find their own territories, except by happenstance.

That was one muse I had that evaporated upon a little reading but I had other questions to explore. I was glad to learn that hummers don’t rely only on nectar from flowers and the sweetened liquid our feeders supply, but also get a lot of nourishment from eating tiny insects. And a couple of times I’ve witnessed a hummer take a nip from my suet feeder. It seemed to do that out of curiosity having witnessed, perhaps, so many other birds flocking to the feeder. A taste was all it wanted; it didn’t come back for seconds, although watching it give it a try was a surprise.  Has anyone else seen this?

In Margaret’s pamphlet she states that, “in March or April, when the Indian currant hangs out its rosy blossoms, the Rufous Hummingbird arrives from the south…the male…is the first scout to reach here. Like a winged coal of fire, he whizzes around the bushes of Indian current and flowering quince, then mounts up and up and zips from blossom to blossom of the plums and cherries.”  She wrote those words almost eighty years ago, when it was the case that hummingbirds reliably migrated to Mexico every fall and were a harbinger of spring when the first flowers bloomed. How the world has changed!

A flowering currant bush in my garden, from last spring. The bright pink blossoms attract hummingbirds and insects, fairly shouting that spring is here!

Now, it is not uncommon to see hummingbirds stick around our feeders and gardens through the winter. It causes anxiety and wonder among those who normally would bring in their feeders during the cold months but who now feel responsible for the life and death of these birds who seem to have shrugged off the long journey and look to us to sustain them. There is all manner of advice about bringing feeders in overnight and returning them unfrozen in the morning, of warming feeders in microwaves or pans of steeping hot water, of owning multiple feeders so frozen ones can be easily swapped for fresh ones. And then there are gizmos you can purchase that keep the liquid warm outdoors without all the in-and-out. It all still feels fraught.

It brings home the ravages of climate change and our responsibility to do everything in our power to address it and deal with it now. Climate change is here now: it is changing ocean currents, wind patterns, our seasons—and our seasonal harbingers, like migrating birds. Are the Indian plum trees also blooming earlier to keep pace? If not, then feeders need to Mind the Gap in a new application of that cautionary plea.

Margaret didn’t have that extra burden. She saw her mission as getting more people, especially children, to delight in hummingbirds—and all that Nature presents—so that they would become enthusiastic conservationists out of love and their own experience of the wonders of the world. We still have that welling of love and wonder, now over layered with anxiety and even dread, but putting the love of nature first might strengthen us to deal with the latter. One bird at a time, one feeder kept fresh at a time. It’s getting cold outside, and late in the day.

A lucky photo taken last year in wintertime, capturing the moment when a hummingbird came to my feeder

8 thoughts on “The When, Where and How of Hummingbirds

  1. What a description from Margaret, “…like a winged coal of fire…”! I love that!

    I don’t know how long ago hummers stopped migrating from our area, but I’m old enough to remember the advice NOT to leave the feeders out in the late fall so the hummers WOULD continue to migrate. Apparently we don’t need to be having that conversation any more.

    I for one am thrilled to have them around all year. I love their zoominess. Their unexpectedness. Their feistiness. And over the winters, we have done it all with the feeders. Bringing them in over night. Warming up the frozen ones slowly on heating pads, putting rigged up lights underneath. And, we’ll do something again this winter. A small price to pay for the pleasure the hummers give to us.

    And now, as the day goes by, I’ll be looking out my kitchen window for another visit from the “winged coal of fire”!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I had to find a way to include some of Margaret’s own poetic descriptions. I should have skipped all my ruminations and just quoted hers. But it really struck me how much life had changed from her day! I wonder what she would think of it all?

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  3. Two things:

    1. Rufous hummers still migrate south for the winter but Anna’s stick around all year.

    2. If you have access to an outlet near your hummingbird feeder, consider a heated one from Hummers Heated Delight. I have been very happy with mine. It uses a xmas string light bulb to keep the solution from freezing and is available on-line only.

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  4. You nailed it. I can never fully decide what kind of hummingbird is coming to my feeder. It must be an Anna’s then.
    Margaret only wrote about Rufous…I wonder if Anna’s weren’t so numerous in her day? I always have more questions than answers!

    I don’t have a nearby outlet but that’s a good tip for everyone who does. I’ll be doing the switching in and out and other methods. And it’s getting colder!

    Miss you.

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  5. They have a way of insisting we notice them! “My” hummer will sometimes come right up to my face to let me know my feeder needs attention. It just hovers there looking at me until I get the message….loud and clear. At least that’s what it feels like.

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