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Happy (and Hungry) are the Hummingbirds

PHOTO: A hummingbird sitting on her tiny nest. Her body literally fills the lichen, spider web, twig and fluff-constructed nest to the edges, sealing in the eggs from weather and temperature fluctuations.

Spring is here and more than a few creatures have spring fever. Daily I strip long lines of pale green aphids from the tender shoots of my young roses.

PHOTO: An Anna’s hummingbird nectaring at spring-blooming, California native Salvia spathacea – commonly known as Hummingbird Sage. Photo by J. Jewell.

While the rapid reproduction of the aphids might be less than appealing, other sights of spring are amazing and endearing to even the most non-gardening among us.

PHOTO: An Anna’s hummingbird resting momentarily on a dried Salvia seed head.

The other day a friend and I had the good fortune and fun to witness two hummingbirds intently working their way through the spent seed stalks of some tall dried grasses that had yet to be cut back. As per usual, I could hear the industrious birds in flight before I could see them and once the bzzzing humming sound is apparent, it’s difficult to not try to locate them – like hearing a small plane overhead. This high frequency sound is of course how they got their common name of Hummingbird and is created by the rapid rate at which they flap their wings – between 50 and 200 beats per second.


PHOTO: Hummingbirds are incredible aerialists. Their agility is possible because their wings have adapted to move very freely and in almost any direction at the shoulder.

The birds were at about hip height and facing us – they would hover, focus, then move in, grab hold of the stalk and with a sharp twist of their heads assertively remove seed fluff. After doing this 4 or 5 times, the determined nest building engineers cast a watchful eye in our direction and then became blurs and they zipped off in the direction of tall trees and dense shrubs.

PHOTO: The endless pursuit of food. My friend said: I once read in National Geographic that if hummingbirds were not the tiniest birds on the planet, they’d be terrifying.

PHOTO: Hummingbirds’ wing design allows them to hover, suspending their bodies in midair, as well as to fly backward, upward, even upside down. Soaring is the only maneuver they can not perform.

It’s dazzling to observe their bright colors flashing and the grace and ease with which they fly and dive and buzz and then perch completely still on a branch end. But you don’t want to get in between them and food or a rival. Hummingbirds are ferocious in their pursuit of food and defense of territory.

PHOTO: Hummingbird in flight.

And for good reason. At their tiny size they require more than their own bodyweight in food every day and they spend literally almost every waking minute finding and consuming this food. While they hunt insects for needed protein, the largest portion of their daily diet is flower nectar. Many flowers, including the Salvias of North America, have co-evolved with hummingbirds – the flowers produce nectar and in return they receive pollination services via busy hummingbirds’ backs and beaks.

PHOTO: Hummingbird nectaring at summer-blooming Salvia ‘heatwave series’. Photo by J. Jewell.

Most of us enjoy having a hummingbird feeder or two in our garden. Many researchers believe that it could in large part be due to home hummingbird feeders that some hummingbird territories have expanded as far North as they have, and that some species winter over much further North than previously. I will share the gentle reminder of a backyard bird website that flower nectar is far more complex than white table sugar and water. If you’re going to be really successful attracting and supporting hummingbird populations you must garden for them – providing them with tubular, nectar rich flowers for as much of the season as possible. Manzanitas, monadarellas, salvias and California fuchsias are all reliable nectar sources for our populations. Further, if you’re going to garden for hummingbirds, it’s likewise important to think twice before using pesticides or herbicides of any kinds. These birds we enjoy dine on many many small insects and they collect both foliage materials and spider webs for their carefully engineered nests. I would not want to think I was passing poisons to the hummingbirds I attract through either of these pathways.

PHOTO: In 2008, student researchers at UC Berkeley discovered that the characteristic “chirps and whistles” that the male Anna’s Hummingbird makes as it dives at more than 50 miles per hour in its signature mating maneuver is created not by its mouth, but by its tail feathers vibrating.

Hummingbirds live only in the Americas. Of the 338 species known, 16 are found in the United States and according to our regional Altacal Audubon the Anna’s hummingbird (Calypte anna) is a year-round resident, and other species that visit regularly include the Black-Chinned (Chlorostilbon notatus), the Calliope (Selasphorus calliope) the Rufous (Selasphorus rufus) and Allen’s (Selasphorus sasin).

Unless otherwise noted all photos in this article were taken by John Whittlesey and are copyright Canyon Creek Nursery & Design 2015. Follow Jewellgarden.com/In a North State Garden on Facebook

To submit plant/gardening related events/classes to the Jewellgarden.com on-line Calendar of Regional Gardening Events, send the pertinent information to me at: Jennifer@jewellgarden.com

In a North State Garden is a bi-weekly North State Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday morning at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time, two times a month.

Jennifer Jewell

In a North State Garden is a bi-weekly North State Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum - Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell - all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday morning at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time, two times a month.

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