Michael A. LaCombe
Sam C. Wainright
This month we will not be talking about a squabble of gulls, a richness of swallows, a murder of crows, nor even a conspiracy of ravens. A mewing of catbirds, a plagiary of mockingbirds, and a sweetness of Yellow Warblers are all out of consideration in this month’s blog.
We shall instead examine everybody’s favorite, the hummingbird, of which a flock is termed a charm.
We have just one species of hummingbird in the east, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird,
whereas, in Central America, where our ruby-throats winter, over 300 species of hummingbird may be found.
Photographing them is difficult. They move fast, zig-zag about a bank of nectar-laden flowers, and are very seldom still. The snow cap in Costa Rica is a prime example:
These tiny birds, each weighing about that of a nickel, are quite aggressive, both with others of their genus, and with much larger birds as well. The larger hummingbirds, like this Violet Sabrewing, might feel less threatened, I suppose, and so hold still for the photographer:
Yes, they feed on nectar, but like us, they cannot live on sugar alone, and get their protein from small insects. This White-necked Jacobin can be seen nipping at the insects attracted to the feeder, a bonus side dish for them.
The hummingbird laps up the nectar with its long tongue shooting in and out of its bill 15 times a second. It does not sip or suck up the nectar, as is commonly believed.
Size doesn’t always matter. The Rufous-tailed Hummingbird (photo below), very common everywhere in Costa Rica, is medium-sized, but is dominant over most other hummingbirds. One of its distinguishing features is the red bill with the black tip. Look closely and you can make this out.
This species is partial to coffee flowers, a very good excuse to visit any coffee plantation.
Hummingbirds are not so plentiful on Peaks Island but eBird records report them here from late July to Labor Day every year. Look for long, tubular flowers like those ones on the honeysuckle vine, found just in front of Battery Steele, blossoming in mid- to late July. Also, all along the walks and roads of the island, you will find tubular, nodding, brightly colored flowers, and among them, hummingbirds. Insects have a hard time reaching their nectar, and the hummingbirds can out-compete them.
Out of respect for landowners and their privacy, I won’t tell you where specifically, but you can find them as I have. Always ask permission, even if you feel it is not necessary.
An answer to a common question: should you feed hummingbirds with artificial nectar (sugar-water)? Only if you have a dishwasher, and you will commit to washing and sanitizing your feeder(s) every 3-4 days. (This is too labor intensive to be done by hand, and despite your good intentions, ultimately you just won’t do it.). Artificial nectar ferments quickly, in just a couple of days, and the fermented nectar scars the bird’s liver, as alcohol does our livers. Bacteria, molds, and parasites grow in the nectar and will infect and harm the hummingbird. If you have passed this point and are persisting in feeding them, do not do so in July and August when natural nectar is plentiful -- plant nectar-producing perennials instead. Natural nectar is superior to sugar-water. That can’t be any surprise. Jim Lausier will be happy to get you the right flowers. You want hardiness zone 3, with flowering times in July-September. Foxglove, fireweed, daylilies, hosta, and late-blooming honeysuckle would be ideal.
Lastly, the chief enemies of the rubythroats: not the tiny hawk, a species of raptor only 7-8 inches long, found in Central America and feeding chiefly on hummingbirds of all varieties, but rather, our domestic cats. Bells on collars don’t work, but there is good evidence that brightly colored collars do work. The Audubon Society has endorsed the BirdsBeSafe collar. Check it out here:
So, that concludes this month’s bird blog. Perhaps future blogs may discuss a Vatican of cardinals, a choir of song sparrows, a teapot of towhees, or yes, even a piteousness of doves.
But not today.