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Tankin’ up and movin’ on; Keep hummingbird feeders full as birds prepare for southern migration

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A pair of hummingbirds at a feeder at Ray Pawley’s house in Arabela. Pawley said a flock of between 100 to 200 birds live in this tiny community near Hondo. (Ray Pawley Photo)

Early in September, well ahead of frosty nights, thousands of hummingbirds (colibris in Spanish) are preparing for their annual journey south to Mexico and beyond. Rather than all of the birds leaving at once in a grand flotilla, they journey in small groups from mid-September until the end of October or later.

A group of hummingbirds enjoy a tasty meal of sugar-water at one of Pawley’s three bird feeders. (Ray Pawley Photo)

What does this mean to those of us who maintain hummingbird sugar-water stations? We need to stay the course. This is the critical time to keep those sugar-water feeders filled all the time.

Across the country, food for our tiny insectivore allies consists of great quantities — thousands of pounds — of minute insects like tiny mosquitoes or gnats. But to grab their food on the wing, these tiny fluffballs, weighing no more than five or six paper clips (5 or 6 grams) each, burn up calories like a biological blow torch. So they need fuel — an endless supply of it. Not only do their lives depend on sugar-fuel, but so do this year’s crop of youngsters. Naïve fledglings that are migrating for the first time are shown no mercy by the adults; they are forced to compete to get their fair share. Be prepared to refill the bottles whenever a cold front arrives or a storm appears on the horizon. The little birds will tank up at a feverish pitch, depleting their precious fuel resource even faster.

Like gasoline to a car

The sugar-water that you and I hang outside for the colibris is like gasoline to a car. Although the “juice” they consume has no nutritional value, it’s their only means of darting to and snatching tiny bugs that they need to feast up on, before they travel south. Autumn is no time to skimp.

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At dusk, hummingbirds need to fully “tank up” on sugar-water before they settle into their night-time torpor (a kind of mini-hibernation) so that they won’t starve before morning. At night, their metabolism slows way down. They stay barely alive keeping their little bio-pilot light going until they regain consciousness at dawn. By then, these hummers will have burned up their reserves from the night before and desperately need a sugar-water fix as soon as there is daylight enough to fly. Thus, the take-home message is: Keep those sugar-water feeders filled. Avoid fermentation problems by changing the sugar-water every 24 hours.

As soon as their feeder is depleted later in the morning, the next refill will enable the adults to maintain maximum fuel efficiency while gathering food for nestlings (in the summer) or for their journey (in autumn). To embark on a summer of hanging out bottles of sugar-water for hummingbirds is to commit to underwriting their high-speed lifestyle through and into fall. We must not miss on this one.

And, be careful where you hang the bottles! They need to be out of reach of cats that will bat them out of the air. Roadrunners will even hop up on a table to get close to a sugar-water bottle where they can snatch up a hummer. And do yourself a favor by placing the bottles where the birds’ brilliant iridescence is highlighted in the gleam of the late afternoon sun as you sit in the shade relaxing and sipping your own brand of sugar-water.

So what about all those flowers that hummers/colibris forage among? The short answer: We have created a tiny, avian monster and collectively there just aren’t enough flowers to fuel them all. That’s why we are bound to hang bottles of sugar-water for these tiny feathered gems — there are far too few flowers. Moreover, each morning it will be only the earliest colibris that will get a natural floral nectar recharge and perhaps pick off a tiny worm in the process.

Nectar from flowers is scarce

The highly desirable nectar from flowers is in seriously limited supply. Here in Arabela, if we were to abruptly stop feeding our local flock of 100 to 200 hummers, there would be a massive crisis since there are no meadows of tiny flowers that can keep pumping out nectar all day to meet their needs. Without the sugar-water bottles being scrupulously refilled as needed, this location could not support more than perhaps one or two breeding pairs in an area about a city block square.

We’ve all heard about the remarkable extremes of hummingbird biology — that they are the smallest of all birds, that the 300 species are found only in the New World and that they can migrate and nest as far north as Alaska. They are dazzlingly iridescent, bold and their wings can beat up to 80 times per second (try tapping your finger that fast). A hummingbird’s muscles use 10 times more oxygen per minute than that of a human athlete. The list goes on.

But an intriguing mystery is thisÚ “Why do hummingbirds use sugar-water feeders anyway?” Despite their crude resemblances to flowers, hummingbird feeders are just bottles of water with lots of sugar added (my recipe is three dry-measure cups of granulated sugar plus a tablespoon of black-strap molasses to 2.5 quarts of water). That’s more sugar per quart of water than most people provide but with the heavier dose of sugar, the birds do not need to come back as often to refuel, and this cuts way back on their aggression with each other.

In fact, with this recipe I have seen two, sometimes three hovering hummingbirds, patiently taking turns at the same plastic “flower” spout without any argument.

Not all hummers accept feeders

All of that said, it is a fact that not all hummingbirds are willing to accept feeders. The true patrons of the bottle are found in the west. For example, ruby-throats from east of the Mississippi River seldom accept sugar-water from feeders and yet their western relative, the broad-tailed hummingbird with its similar iridescent red bib, is an avid consumer of sugar-water. Is there an explanation to this? Perhaps, because ruby-throats migrate south along the Gulf of Mexico or cut across the Gulf to Yucatan, they are traveling too far east of the Valley of Mexico. Broad-tailed hummers, on the other hand, take a migratory route from the western U.S. directly into the Valley of Mexico. The Ruby-throats would not have had the extensive overlapping centuries of direct contact with humans that their close relative, the broad-tailed hummingbird, has had.

By taking care of hummers in captivity, some of us in the zoo field have had a marvelous, close-up interactive opportunity to learn about their behavior in ways that would be impossible by trying to watch them at a distance. For example, if a hummingbird escapes from its enclosure and is loose in the service corridor, we close doors and windows and then refill and hang its sugar-water bottle just outside of its enclosure.

Within a half hour, when the bird needs to refuel, we can walk over as the bird is drinking and rehang the bottle, complete with its avian client, back in its enclosure. We avoid wearing anything red because we do not want to unnecessarily attract birds to us while we are observing their behavior.

Hummingbirds tend to be a pugnacious group, but few species are as unafraid of people as the Black-chinned, Broad-tailed (with their “zinging” wings) or rufous. These three species in particular will accept sugar-water feeders as eagerly as a crimson flower, and willingly accept the risks of associating with care-giving people as part of the bargain.

Are certain colibris semi-domesticated and have they become all too abundant? Put another way, would there be a population crash if we all stopped giving them sugar-water? The hummingbird is a bold, flexible, partnership-driven opportunist. Since the age of dinosaurs came to an end (60 million years ago) some colibri species adapted over the millennia along with certain flowers into a mutually dependent relationship. And it doesn’t stop there.

Within the last several years, a few species have, as we know, adapted to getting fuel refills from sugar-water bottles that require a certain amount of close contact — indeed within touch range — of people. That they have willingly accepted and adjusted to this remarkable degree of closeness is extraordinary. They have gotten to know us.

In fact, when a flotilla of black-chinned hummers arrive in the spring, they immediately hover outside of my office window announcing their return, and will continue to do so until their refueling bottle of sugar-water is hung. They obviously know where I live and how to get my attention.

It’s my own guess, but I think these tiny birds have been patronizing our handouts for many centuries — far longer than the last few decades that people have been hanging out feeders for hummingbirds.

Sacred birds in ancient Mexico

It is a fact that for several hundreds of years the Azteca-Mexica people and their ancestors from the Valley of Mexico have had a tight relationship with the hummingbird. Despite the enormous culture shock that happened when Cortez crushed the warriors of Tenochtitlan in 1521, the feeding of hummingbirds by priests had probably been going on for centuries, particularly at sacrificial sites. Since then, thanks to caring individuals, the practice was more or less continued.

Although infamous for their sacrificial practices, the Azteca-Mexica people were extraordinary agriculturalists and their island and city, especially around the central plaza, was heavily planted with flowering shrubs, plants, orchids and more.

The instant that one or more of these tiny birds would hover and touch one of the spots on a priest’s face or torso, the experience would be mind-bending. Especially in such a religious ritualistic context. Quickly after and resembling a splash of sunlight, those iridescent birds flying west toward the setting sun would have created yet a further solemn sense of wonder.

Speculating further, it’s but a small, simple step for some quick-minded, ancient priest to then concoct a honey and water mixture to further attract both the colibris and the tiny insects on which they feed. Within a very few years, numbers of colibris attracted in this manner, especially during times of sacrifice, would become a significant fixture in the Azteca-Mexica religion and the birds would be very willing participants for a totally different reason — an alternative source of bio-fuel to ramp up their acquisition of food. Once in place, this cooperative pattern between birds and humans would have amplified over the centuries.

Why would the Azteca-Mexica been eager to attract and cultivate a relationship with hummingbirds and cultivate the flowering foliage that attracts them?

Ultimately the hummingbirds (Huitzitzilin, as they are called in Nahuatl, the language of the Azteca-Mexica), would have been elevated over the centuries and morphed into their greatest god, Huitzilopochtli, who was not only the patron god of their city and culture, but also the God of the Sun and God of Sacrifice. This helps explain why the all-powerful Huitzilopochtli of the New World’s most powerful army of warriors would be represented not by a powerful eagle or a jaguar, but by the tiniest of the world’s birds, the colibri, the spiritual avian messenger that is God personified.

Have these tiny birds with their gem-like iridescence moved into our world as semi-domesticates, beginning with the ancestral Aztecs that elevated the colibri to a powerful religious icon? By nudging the bold little hummingbird into a role of semi-dependent partnership with humans, we have fallen victim as they moved into our hearts (without the need for sacrifice) and our imaginations.

Meanwhile, let’s keep those sugar-water fueling stations fully tended until the last colibri leaves for its winter homeland.

Ray Pawley, previously with Chicago’s Lincoln Park and Brookfield zoos and the Field Museum of Natural History, continues to consult for zoos and museums. He resides in Arabela, where his research on animal behavior and physiology is ongoing. Most recently he has directed the Hubbard Museum of the American West in Ruidoso Downs and lectures for national audiences. He can be reached at raypawley@pvtnetworks.net.