Lifestyles

Pink wildflowers signal magical hummer’s return

A female Rufous hummingbird on sprouting Red Elderberry.   - Photo by Charles Brandt
A female Rufous hummingbird on sprouting Red Elderberry.
— image credit: Photo by Charles Brandt

Right on cue, April’s first wildflowers herald the hummingbirds’ return.

The prize they seek is nectar deep within Salmonberry and Flowering red-currant blooms.

We welcome the most common hummer species on the West Coast in the soft and tiny Rufous, at 9 cm (3.5 in.) -- a creature with 22-million-years of history. Among the smallest birds in the world, at 2.5 grams, they are also the easiest to identify.

Hummers are dazzling aerialists; like helicopters, they can hover, fly forward or backward, straight up or down, and sideways. Using their wings as propellers, they make little figure eights in the air…far quicker than the eye can see.

It takes a lot of muscle to power all this up, and even larger birds – like the Rough-legged Hawk – have puny chest muscles by comparison.

The hummingbird’s tongue -- containing two tubes -- is about twice as long as its very long beak. Two tips on the tongue’s end unfurl to trap nectar, in a process lasting less than 1/20 of one second, thousands of times a day.

And no … hummingbirds don’t hum; they can’t even carry a tune. It’s the wings that make the buzzy, whistling sound because they move so fast – about 75 times per second.

Gifted with great eyesight, hummingbirds can see a flower at a distance of half a mile. And they’re a loyal bunch. Once they discover a reliable feeder, they’ll return every 15 minutes or so, day after day, or even year after year. So treat your hummers well.

NECTAR:

To make hummingbird nectar, mix one part sugar and four parts water; simmer for 5 minutes (to disinfect). Cool or refrigerate before filling feeder; store unused nectar in fridge for up to a week.

Never make the mixture stronger, which may cause dehydration or liver damage. Skip the red food dye and commercial mixes, suspected of causing thrush on wee hummingbird tongues. And never use honey, which develops mold that causes infections in hummers. Wash, rinse and refill the feeders at least once a week, more often if feeder is in direct sunlight. Nectar clouds and ferments quickly, and may develop harmful bacteria. If bees, wasps or ants become a problem, coat the feeder and hanging wires with cooking oil.

NEST: Marshmallows are soft and small … and just the size of a hummingbird nest. For nesting materials, hummingbirds like it soft; they gather fluffy plant down, feathers, tiny leaf lichens, spongy moss, delicate shreds of bark and plant fibres. This they bind together with stolen spider silk before lining the nest with more downy vegetation.

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