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Nature Notes: Misconceptions about hummingbirds

Nature Notes: Misconceptions about hummingbirds

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What would summer be without hummingbirds? What other bird (other than house sparrows) spends so much time in your yard and often within view? In my yard, they are present from mid-May to mid-September. What other bird comes as close to you as a hummingbird? Who has not had a hummingbird hover in front of your face? Yet misconceptions abound concerning these birds that bring so much pleasure to so many people.

One such misconception is these tiny birds, the smallest in the bird world, cannot take care of themselves without our help. The problem is they existed just fine for thousands of years before we humans began putting out sugar water for them. We do help them receive that quick energy they get from sugar water but they also get the same thing, sugar and water, from flower nectar.

Hummingbird brains weigh 4.2% of their body weight. Human brains weigh only 2% of their body weight. Many scientists claim they are among the most intelligent of birds.

Another one is feeders must be red or yellow. My feeder is red plastic with yellow plastic flowers surrounding the feeding ports. Some even go so far as saying we need to trick them into coming to a feeder by dying the sugar water red. Flower nectar is clear and sugar water should also be clear. Also, use no brown sugar or honey, just plain old white sugar.

Hummingbirds are attracted to the color red, along with yellow, orange, pink and purple, since flowers come in those colors. They visit over 1,000 flowers each day to fulfill their daily quick energy. As a side note, wasps and yellowjackets are attracted to the color yellow. Those yellow plastic flowers on my feeder do nothing to attract hummingbirds but do attract wasps.

Feeders should be cleaned each time they are refilled, but hot water usually works fine. Do not use soap since it can stay in the feeder. In summer, feeders need to be cleaned and refilled at least twice a week.

I am making a guess here, but I think a hummingbird new to a neighborhood cruises along the sides of houses searching for red or yellow but also looking for the general shape of hummingbird feeders. These savvy birds know what we humans put out for them. They also easily remember good feeders year after year.

Another misconception is hummingbirds eat only nectar, which is basically sugar and water. Hummingbirds are so tiny they need a constant source of ready energy. Normally, they obtain this energy by drinking flower nectar or our sugar water.

But, like all animals, they also need nutrients, like fats and proteins. They are voracious hunters of small insects such as aphids, gnats and mosquitoes. Spiders are their favorite food source, especially baby spiders. It is estimated they daily eat more than their body weight in insects, particularly in migration. Spiders may make up between 60% and 80% of their daily solid food. Hummingbirds can sometimes be seen hovering and moving slowly along a tree branch, hunting for small insects and spiders. Hummingbirds can get their basic everyday vitamins and minerals through a well-balanced healthy diet of protein and nectar. The vitamins added to some commercial solutions are unnecessary.

Another one is once you begin feeding hummingbirds, you must not stop. If your feeders go dry, the hummingbirds that depended on that food will starve to death. Actually, they instinctively forage for food, visiting many locations and many other feeders, during the day. They never become dependent on one source and studies have shown that birds with easy access to feeders use them for only 20% of their daily rations.

Another is feeders must be taken down in early fall to encourage hummingbirds to begin their migration. A ready supply of sugar water will keep them here until it is too late and they freeze to death. Hummingbirds are great at migrating. They know when it is time to migrate south and nothing is going to keep them from doing it. Keeping feeders filled ensures summer residents have sugar water right up until they move south and also offers food to migrating birds passing through.

A common misconception is hummingbirds will alert humans that the feeder is dry. While some people claim this as true and I can find tales of this on the internet, I have seen no credible, scientific evidence online that it is true. But, it has been shown hummingbirds can recognize individual people and approach ones they know. They can be induced to perch on a finger or feed from a feeder held by a person. But alerting people to empty feeders?

Another one is these tiny birds cannot possibly fly the long distances during migrations to Mexico or Central America. They must ride on the backs of larger, stronger birds. Canada geese are often cited as carrying hummingbirds on their backs.

The ruby-throated hummingbird, for example, migrates from eastern United States and Canada, across or around the Gulf of Mexico, to spend the winter in the tropics. Hummingbirds are experts at long-distance flight. They typically gain 25-40% of their body weight before they start migration. Some birds fly non-stop across the 500-mile width of the Gulf of Mexico, in 18-22 hours. They fly by day and use tail winds to help conserve energy. Research indicates a hummingbird can travel as much as 23 miles in one day.

Larry Hyslop is a correspondent for the Elko Daily in Elko, Nevada, a Lee Enterprises newspaper.


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