Snoqualmie Valley’s fiercest animal resident: the tiny Hummingbird

[Article by North Bend resident, pet trainer at Miss Lola’s Academy for Wayward Dogs and wildlife enthusiast, Melissa Grant]

What North Bend critter weighs only 4 grams, moves at 30 miles per hour, but cannot walk, must consume half their body weight in sugar daily and is one of the most aggressive of their kind?

The tiny Trochilidae – AKA the Hummingbird.

I’ll admit to a not so small obsession with these birds. I have four feeders that I clean and fill regularly. A bright red fountain in the summertime that must be filled with distilled water if I want visitors of the feathered kind and a copper swing with a bright red glass jewel for the latest King (or Queen) of the feeders to survey his or her domain. I have a camera, on its tripod, near the window by the feeder so I can (try to) photograph one as they jockey for a sip of nectar before being chased away by a noisier bigger bird.

Now that I’m in the thick of my preoccupation, I can’t believe I paid no mind to them in the past. Or that they allowed me to ignore them.

Hummingbird brains make up 4.2% of their body weight, making them the bird with the biggest brain. That brain apparently holds a wealth of information, including all the flowers they’ve visited, how long they must wait before visiting again, where the feeders are and the humans who fill the feeders.

They know me now and like the mafia, once you’re in, you can’t get out.

Not that I want to, my fascination is complete. I now know that Hummingbirds are native to the America’s and that there are 338 known species with 4 species that are known to occur in Washington State: the Black Chinned & Calliope in Eastern Washington and the two we see around here, the Rufous and Anna’s.

Our Valley only has one native year-round bird, the Anna’s.  The largest and most vocal hummingbird, they are common up and down the Pacific Coast. About the size of a plum and no heavier than a nickel, they are showy little territorial creatures. Females look sometimes a dull gray, but are iridescent metallic green with a bright pink gorget (throat). Males are the same, but with a showy bright pink crown to woo the lady birds.

And boy do they woo! The Anna mating dive is the showiest of all the hummingbirds. While the female watches, they fly 130 feet up in the air, plummet to the ground at 60 mph and end with a loud short high-pitched noise. If the female is impressed enough she then leads him back to the nest she built out of spider webs and plant downs. He does not help make the nest or raise the young, but merely waits for the next receptive female to enter his territory and does it all again while chasing off other males. The female tends the nest, usually two eggs, for approximately 16 days and then her nestlings for another 20 days. Listen for his scratchy metallic song as he sits in the trees watching for invaders. Hummingbird males can get mean. Those long needle like beaks can be inserted delicately in flowers, but they can also act as face knives to stab competitors in the throat.

Face knives with forked tongues! Previously scientists thought that their tongues were like tiny straws they used to suck up nectar, but in 2011 researchers found that hummingbirds have forked tongues with tiny hair-like extensions called lamellae. When they drink the fork opens and the extensions unroll and curl around the nectar. When the tongue is brought back into the mouth the forks closes and the nectar is trapped.

We do have another part-time hummingbird resident in Western Washington: the Rufous. Arriving in March and April after wintering in Mexico and Central America, the females get to work building nests out of moss and spider webs while the males start trying to impress them with their dive routines.

Widely known for its aggressive nature, it is also known as the hummingbird to reach the most northern latitudes, having a short breeding season in Alaska. Smaller than the Anna’s the males are bright orange on their backs and bellies with an iridescent red throat. Females have mostly green upper parts with rufous tinted flanks and an orange throat.

Both types of birds are incredible tiny stunt pilots.

Hummingbirds can fly forward, backwards, upside down and can hover in midair. The wings beat between 70 and 200 times per second. All of that action comes at a huge energy cost and to compensate these tiny flyers need to eat constantly about every ten minutes. They end up eating two to three times their body weight in bugs and nectar every day. Can you imagine? For me that’s…well never mind, it’s a lot. They need all that energy to make the long trek back south in August. Even sleeping hummingbirds have huge metabolic demands, so in order to survive they enter torpor a way of lowering their body temperature and becoming hypothermic to conserve energy. It is a sleep as deep as death so if you find a cold little Anna’s in the winter do not assume the worst. It is handy evolutionary adaptation to help with energy regulation and they may wake to angrily chirp for their nectar in a couple of hours.

Now that I’m in the Hummingbird mafia, I’m in for life. In the summertime I change the nectar daily and wash the feeders weekly. In the winter I bring the feeders in overnight and put them out early in the morning. Since I am in an area populated by bears, I have window feeders and no tree feeders for hungry bears. My ultimate goal is to get one to feed from my hand. I’ve been close, but not yet! For now I’ll try to be content watching them out my window and trying to get a good picture.

 

Male Rufous hummingbird. PC: Denise LaPerriere

 

Female Rufous hummingbird. PC: Denise LaPerriere

 

Female Anna: PC: Melissa Grant

 

Male Anna. PC: Melissa Grant

Comments

  1. We are especially fond of the hummers as well. Since the Anna’s do stick around all year, if you do want to offer them nectar, be sure to have it out at room temp on frosty mornings. They will be out at first and fading light for a refill, so pay attention. As the writer states, your locals will get to know you and will hover at your shoulder as you hang a fresh feeder.

    One other point is that both of these local varieties are extra-territorial, so if you can (and why not?) put one in the front and another in the back or side out of view from the vigilant protector of the 1st. Early morning and late evening they are more tolerant of ‘guests’ and we’ve seen 5 at one feeder at a time.

  2. J Middaugh says:

    It can be dangerous in our yard at certain times of the year. The hummingbirds zip back and forth, better not get near one of the feeders. The little pigs consume mass quantities of sugar, over s gallon a week sometimes. Part of our family. Thanks for the article.

  3. Thank you for this wonderful article! I love watching the hummingbirds flit around and feed in our yard. They are so beautiful and intriguing. It’s very mportant to keep feeders cleaned and filled so that our feathered friends can thrive and live a healthy life.

  4. Bob Bailie says:

    A very nice article, thank you.
    In winter, I put out my electrically heated feeders.
    One is called ‘Heated Hummers Delight’ and the other I made myself, using a dish shaped feeder and a small size ‘heat tape’ secured to it by black electrical tape.
    Both work just fine.

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